Tom Furness, Founder of the Virtual World Society with the NEXTANT Prize at the Society booth at the Augmented World Expo 2016.

Long before the days of GPS and other electronic navigation systems, mariners relied on three instruments to navigate their ships to desired destinations. These instruments were a compass, a clock, and a sextant. The sextant is an optical instrument used to measure the angle between two objects, such as the sun relative to the horizon. At night, the sextant is used to ‘shoot the stars’. This sextant information, when combined with date and time, enabled mariners to calculate a ‘fix’ of their position on a nautical map. Together with the compass, these three simple instruments made accurate and timely navigation possible across oceans where there were no visible landmarks.

I made use of the concept of the sextant in a talk I gave at AWE 2015 (June 10, 2015). The talk was entitled, ‘Being the Future’. In that talk I related my experience developing virtual and augmented reality over a 50-year span as I served first as a military scientist designing fighter aircraft cockpits that incorporated virtual and augmented reality, and then as an academic exploiting VR and AR for medical, training, educational and enterprise applications.

Even in the 1960s, we were able to envision the incredible transformational power that AR and VR could afford people in many applications – especially those in education and training. But it was also clear that that this vision would require and have to await a time when major advances in key technologies could enable the kind of high quality and affordable virtual world experiences necessary to make that vision a practical and achievable reality.

Over the next three decades, getting a “fix” where we were on the technology development map was hardly difficult – the steering headings to reach technology destinations were clear. Indeed, our navigation system to chart and measure progress across the ocean of technology advancements during that period was quite sufficient. We did experience some periods of dead calm when the overhyping of ‘the VR revolution’ took much of the wind from our sails. But the march of progress in smartphones and graphics processors in the last decade put us firmly back on course where all the VR possibilities we dreamed about decades before could finally become reality.

Only now we find that the same explosion in technology that has propelled this renaissance in VR and AR has also put us in a high sea state. There is so much happening it’s difficult to see the horizon, much less plot our course- or even know the destination. And unlike ancient mariners, shooting the stars’ can no longer help us because there are no “stars” to be seen in the current storm. And worse, I feel we have lost our ability to predict or even guide us towards a more hopeful future, leaving us with the default of using this newfound technology for just creating more and ‘better’ games of violence.

As a solution to these navigation challenges of our present day, I offer the idea of a new navigational instrument – something I call the NEXTANT – the ‘Next-Sextant’.
I believe that each of us already has embedded within us just such an instrument …it is our heart and conscience. We already know innately what is good and right and what can lift humankind. Our Nextants are ready to enable us to see beyond this default dark side of virtual reality. Relying on our Nextants is not unlike in Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker learned to trust the ‘Force’ to guide his decisions.

I believe that all of us, as 21st Century technology mariners, need to come together to be a ‘force’ for good. That we need to form a community and use our Nextants and the VR tools of our age to collectively unlock our potential and link hearts and minds globally to solve problems and build a better world. We need a Virtual World Society that can gather and harness Nextant users and create a movement – a community of communities – that can and will literally change the world.

The First Nextant

VR pioneer and inventor Randy Pausch, PhD is the first recipient of the Nextant Prize.
VR pioneer and inventor Randy Pausch, PhD is the first recipient of the Nextant Prize.

As part of the Auggie Award Ceremony at the AWE 2016 meeting this past June, the newly formed Virtual World Society

presented the first Nextant Prize, posthumously, to Randy Pausch – an individual who epitomized the very heart and spirit of the Nextant and the goals of the Virtual World Society to use VR technology for good.

Going forward, we want the Virtual World Society to recognize and highlight other individuals around the world who, often quietly, are making profound contributions to solve pervasive problems that improve the lives of our human family. We feel this is the key part of our mission.

Stayed tuned to the Virtual World Society website for updates and information about our upcoming Nextant prizes along with reports on activities around the world that embody and demonstrate the goals set forth here and their power for positive change for us all.



Tom Furness
Chairman, Board of Directors
Virtual World Society


About Tom Furness

Thomas A. Furness III is an American inventor, professor, and virtual reality pioneer based in Seattle, Washington. He is a Professor in the University of Washington Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, and the founder of the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington and its sister labs at the University of Canterbury and University of Tasmania. Known for his contributions in developing human interface technology, he has earned the title, "Grandfather of Virtual Reality."
The “Nextant”
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