Frederick P. Brooks Jr. '53

Virtual Reality Check
Writer: 
June 1, 2005

Frederick P. Brooks Jr. '53

Jon Gardiner

Crouching outside the doorway, just out of view, Fred Brooks takes a deep breath, then bursts through the door. He dodges spurts of imagined machine-gun fire as he zigzags across the room, taking cover behind phantom barriers.

This model training ground, Brooks explains, is part of research he is doing in the field of synthetic environments, better known as virtual reality.

The U.S. military is attempting to create more realistic, space-efficient training facilities, and virtual training fields, transmitted to trainees via a head-mounted display, provide one promising approach. Brooks is studying the science of illusion, trying to decide just how real a program must be to be real enough.

He points to a diagram of the path run by test subjects--a short, jagged arc that fits economically into the bottom right corner of the page. "They ran like this," he says.

"But," he adds, tracing a crisp line that zigzags from top to bottom across the length of the field, "they were convinced they were doing this."

When it comes to groundbreaking research and development, Brooks, Kenan Professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an old hand. Working for IBM forty years ago, he oversaw a major breakthrough in computer compatibility, then went on to found the nation's second freestanding, research-based computer-science department, which he has continued to guide as an educator, mentor, and scientist.

In 1961, just five years out of a doctoral program at Harvard, Brooks was handed the reins of IBM's revolutionary System/360 computer project.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the world," he says.

IBM had been working for years with six distinct computer "families" whose software was mutually incompatible. That meant separate programs had to be written for each machine, and collaboration among families was nearly impossible.

The new S/360 solved those problems, and others. Compatible drives and software facilitated teleprocessing, or the accessing of computers over telephone wires, laying down some of the foundation for today's Internet networks.

"If you buy a new computer and all of your old software still runs on it, you have Fred Brooks to thank for that," says UNC colleague Stephen Weiss, a computer-science professor. "He's also responsible for the use of lower-case characters. If you use a text editor like Microsoft Word, he facilitated that."

While improvements have since been made to the system, the same basic model remains even today. In 1985, Brooks became one of the first recipients of the National Medal of Technology for scientific innovation, awarded by the U.S. president.

Many also credit the Greenville, North Carolina, native's success with persuading IBM to locate a new research facility in Research Triangle Park in 1965, a move widely seen as the corporate stamp of approval that jumpstarted the fledgling park. Today, IBM employs more than 13,000 people.

"The people at the park did the persuading," Brooks explains. "All I did was get [then-CEO Thomas Watson Jr.] to be serious enough to send someone down to look at it."

In the meantime, Brooks was invited to interview for a position at UNC's computation center. He suggested that administrators instead create an independent computer-science department, unheard of in those days, when most programs were housed within math or electrical-engineering departments.

The following year, he was asked to head the university's new department. What Brooks has created at UNC is a remarkably outward-looking program that focuses on projects with real-world applications, such as helping physicians improve medical imaging and adding technological applications to historical exhibitions, in addition to exploring virtual training programs for the military.

Brooks, says Weiss, "sees computer scientists as tool builders for other disciplines."