Skip to content

Jaron Lanier

Computer Scientist, Seer, Artist

Jaron Zepel Lanier is an American computer scientist, best known for popularizing the term virtual reality (VR).

A pioneer in the field of VR, Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. In the late 1990s, Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s, he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. More recently, he has acted as an advisor to Linden Lab on their virtual world product Second Life, and as “scholar-at-large” at Microsoft Research where he has worked on the Kinect device for Xbox 360.

At the age of 13, Lanier convinced New Mexico State University to let him enroll. At NMSU, Lanier met Marvin Minsky and Clyde Tombaugh, and took graduate-level courses; he received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study mathematical notation, which led him to learn computer programming. From 1979 to 1980, the NSF-funded project at NMSU focused on “digital graphical simulations for learning”. Lanier also attended art school in Manhattan during this time, but returned to New Mexico and worked as a midwife. The father of a baby he helped deliver gave him a car as a gift; Lanier drove the car to Los Angeles to visit a girl whose father happened to work in the physics department at the California Institute of Technology, where Lanier met and conversed with Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann.

In California, Lanier worked for Atari, where he met Thomas Zimmerman, inventor of the data glove. After Atari Inc. was split into two companies in 1984, Lanier became unemployed. The free time enabled him to concentrate on his own projects, including VPL, a “post-symbolic” visual programming language. Along with Zimmerman, Lanier founded VPL Research, focusing on commercializing virtual reality technologies; the company prospered for a while, but filed for bankruptcy in 1990. In 1999, Sun Microsystems bought VPL’s virtual reality and graphics-related patents. From 1997 to 2001, Lanier was the Chief Scientist of Advanced Network and Services, which contained the Engineering Office of Internet2, and served as the Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative, a coalition of research universities studying advanced applications for Internet2. The Initiative demonstrated the first prototypes of tele-immersion in 2000 after a three-year development period. From 2001 to 2004, he was Visiting Scientist at Silicon Graphics Inc., where he developed solutions to core problems in telepresence and tele-immersion. He was also visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University, a visiting artist with New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a founding member of the International Institute for Evolution and the Brain.

Lanier has served on numerous advisory boards, including the Board of Councilors of the University of Southern California, Medical Media Systems (a medical visualization spin-off company associated with Dartmouth College), Microdisplay Corporation, and NY3D (developers of auto stereo displays). In mid-1997, he was a founding member of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, an effort devoted to utilizing computer technology to give people who are separated by great distances the illusion that they are physically together. Lanier is a member of the Global Business Network, part of the Monitor Group. He has received Carnegie Mellon University’s Watson award, was a finalist for the first Edge of Computation Award in 2005, and received an honorary doctorate from New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2006. He is also the recipient of the IEEE Virtual Reality Career Award, and was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2010.

Topic Series


You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

Buy the Book