Patent portfolio acquisition by Sun might give a dashing boost to virtual reality

Palo Alto 23 February 1998 After a four year trial in bankruptcy court, Walter Greenleaf, president of Greenleaf Medical Systems, initiated a four million dollar deal with Sun Microsystems to take over the patent portfolio of VPL Research Inc., the pioneer in virtual reality and networked 3D graphics, from Thomson CSF. From 1992 till 1997, Greenleaf Medical maintained the VPL intellectual property, together with other technical assets and as such, has developed various medical products based on virtual reality technology. The recent acquisition opens up new perspectives for the growth of industrial virtual reality applications, as well as for the establishment of hard- and software standards in this area.

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After a four year trial in bankruptcy court, Walter Greenleaf, president of Greenleaf Medical Systems, initiated a four million dollar deal with Sun Microsystems to take over the patent portfolio of VPL Research Inc., the pioneer in virtual reality and networked 3D graphics, from Thomson CSF. From 1992 till 1997, Greenleaf Medical maintained the VPL intellectual property, together with other technical assets and as such, has developed various medical products based on virtual reality technology. The recent acquisition opens up new perspectives for the growth of industrial virtual reality applications, as well as for the establishment of hard- and software standards in this area.

At the time of the patent custody fight, virtual reality technology underwent severe difficulties to make its way out of the research laboratories and high-end prototype industry to the common marketplace. This evolution discouraged venture capitalists to further invest in the search for useful implementation. Still, some important applications today have entered the sphere of everyday life and already constitute a solid business. The medical field in particular, benefits from life-saving virtual reality techniques. Dr. Richard Satava, professor of surgery at the Yale University School of Medicine, reports on the promising results of three-dimensional brain representation, based on data from CT and MRI scans. The 3D images are superimposed on live video to offer surgeons a concept of X-ray vision in order to accurately locate a tumour in the brain.

The founder of VPL Research, Jaron Lanier, is convinced that the future generation of virtual reality techniques will be able to meet the complex requirements to manage giant data-bases and networks, to perform advanced medical imaging, and to cope with fast turn-around mechanical design. All these applications include the need for real time collaboration over the Internet. Sun's purchase of the VPL patents and its renewed interest in virtual reality will result in the introduction of Java 3D, an optimised version of the Java programming language. Java 3D will enable the researchers to accommodate the headgear and datagloves, commonly used in virtual reality environments, but which up till now were quite uncomfortable to wear.

The news of Sun's acquisition of the fundamental patents with regard to networked computer interaction, image rendering and manipulation, and standards for programming software for virtual environments, has been welcomed by the small, undercapitalised companies which have put much effort over the years in the commercialising of virtual reality. The deal was announced only five months after its completion. More details about the transaction can be found in Sun Microsystems'own press release.


Leslie Versweyveld

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