Dr. Thomas A. Furness III

Founder and Chairman
Virtual World Society

Professor & International Director
Industrial & Systems Engineering Department
Human Interface Technology Laboratory
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195


Tom Furness is an amalgam of Professor, Inventor, Virtual Reality Pioneer and Entrepreneur in a professional career that spans 55 years.  He has made notable contributions in photonics, electro-optics, human interface technology, and is considered the ‘grandfather’ of virtual reality and augmented reality.  Tom earned a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from Duke University and the Ph.D. in Engineering and Applied Science from the University of Southampton, England.  He is currently a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, Washington, USA.  He is the founder of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab) at UW and founder and international director of the HIT Lab NZ at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand and the HIT Lab Australia at the University of Tasmania, Launceston, Tasmania. 

Prior to joining the faculty at the UW, Tom served a combined 23 years as an U.S. Air Force officer and civilian scientist at the Armstrong Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he developed advanced cockpits and virtual interfaces for the Department of Defense.  He is the author of the Super Cockpit program and served as the Chief of Visual Display Systems and Super Cockpit Director until he joined the University of Washington in 1989.

Since the beginning of his career Tom has continued to play an active role in virtual and augmented reality development and application.  In 1998 he received the Discover Award for his invention of the virtual retinal display. Tom is co-inventor of the ChromaID technology licensed to Visualant Inc. and received the 2013 SPIE Prism Award for this work. In June 2015 he gave a keynote titled ‘Being the future’ at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California, where he received the first ‘Auggie’ lifetime achievement award for his 50-year contribution to the VR and AR Industries. In March 2016 Tom received the IEEE VR Career Award for his lifetime contributions to the fields of virtual and Augmented Reality and in October 2016 the Virtual Reality Foundation of Los Angeles Proto Award also for lifetime achievement.  Most recently in November 2021 Tom was presented the Accenture Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of International Extended Reality.

Tom lectures widely and has appeared in many national and international network and syndicated television science and technology documentaries and news programs.  He has testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.  He is the inventor of the personal eyewear display, the virtual retinal display, the HALO display and holds 24 patents in advanced sensor, display and interface technologies. With his colleagues and students Dr. Furness has published over 400 papers and conference proceedings and started 27 companies, two of which are traded on NASDAQ at a market capitalization of > $ 12 B (USD).  He is a Fellow in the IEEE and a member of the Computer Society and Photonics Society of the IEEE. He is the founder and chairman of the Virtual World Society, a non-profit for extending virtual reality as a learning system for families and other humanitarian applications. 

Talk Title and description:

A Symphony of Fire

Professor Thomas A. Furness III

Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” It seems like humanity is racing toward a fork in our road to the future…that either leads of extinction due to the pervasive problems we have created or transcendence by connecting hearts and minds to form a new kind of consciousness. Such a new consciousness may emerge from the careful and thoughtful shaping of the metaverse. The metaverse is the sum of what we now call the internet plus extended reality and artificial intelligence. But it is important that we first ask the question ‘why?’ we want to do this addition, then use the answers to that question to inform the ‘how’. In his talk Prof. Furness likens the metaverse to the human discovery of fire for the second time and proposes that we become like musicians in an orchestra where individuals, expert musicians with their own instruments combine, following a common score and conductor, to perform a symphony of fire, each contributing to the effusive sound that is greater than the multiplicity of notes each musician produces alone. Prof. Furness then addresses the question of who writes the score, who is the conductor and what happens next.

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