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Jewish Biography --> Biographies --> List of Jews --> Famous Jewish American Computer Scientists
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Jaron Zepel Lanier (born May 3, 1960[2] in New York City) is computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author.[3] He was a pioneer in, and popularized the term "Virtual Reality" (VR) in the early 1980s.[3] At that time, he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products. His current appointments include Interdisciplinary Scholar-in-Residence, CET, UC Berkeley.

Early life and education

Lanier was born in 1960 in New York City, but raised in Mesilla, New Mexico.[5] On May 18, 2006, Lanier received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.


Lanier has appeared in several documentaries, including the 1992 Danish television documentary Computerbilleder - udfordring til virkeligheden, the 1995 documentary Synthetic Pleasures,[7] and the 2004 television documentary Rage Against the Machines. Lanier was credited as one of the miscellaneous crew for the 2002 film Minority Report. Lanier stated that his role was to help make up the gadgets and scenarios.

In mid-1997, Lanier was a founding member of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative,[9] 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.[10]

In 1994, Lanier released the classical music album Instruments of Change.[11] Lanier is currently working on the book Technology and the Future of the Human Soul, [8] and the music album Proof of Consciousness, a collaboration with Mark Deutsch.[12]

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).

Lanier is a visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University, a visiting artist with New York University's Interactive Communications Program, and a founding member of the International Institute for Evolution and the Brain.[14]

Lanier received an honorary doctorate from New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2006, was the recipient of CMU's Watson award in 2001, and was a finalist for the first Edge of Computation Award in 2005.[4]

Lanier recently contributed the afterward to Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (The MIT Press, 2008) edited by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky.

Computer science

Lanier’s interests include biomimetic information architectures, user interfaces, heterogeneous scientific simulations, advanced information systems for medicine, and computational approaches to the fundamentals of physics. He collaborates with a wide range of scientists in fields related to these interests.

In the late 1980s he lead the team that developed the first implementations of multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays, for both local and wide area networks, as well as the first "avatars", or representations of users within such systems. While at VPL, he and his colleagues developed the first implementations of virtual reality applications in surgical simulation, vehicle interior prototyping, virtual sets for television production, and assorted other areas. He led the team that developed the first widely used software platform architecture for immersive virtual reality applications. Sun Microsystems acquired VPL's seminal portfolio of patents related to Virtual Reality and networked 3D graphics in 1999.

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.


As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new "classical" music since the late 1970s. He is a pianist and a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He maintains one of the largest and most varied collections of actively played rare instruments in the world. Lanier has performed with artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton, Vernon Reid, Terry Riley, Duncan Sheik, Pauline Oliveros, and Stanley Jordan. Recording projects include his "acoustic techno" duet with Sean Lennon and an album of duets with flautist Robert Dick.

He also writes chamber and orchestral music. Current commissions include an opera that will premier in Busan, South Korea. Recent commissions include: “Earthquake!”, a ballet which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in April, 2006; “Little Shimmers” for the TroMetrik ensemble, which premiered at ODC in San Francisco in April, 2006; “Daredevil” for the ArrayMusic chamber ensemble, which was premiered in Toronto in 2006; A concert length sequence of works for orchestra and virtual worlds (including "Canons for Wroclaw", "Khaenoncerto", "The Egg", and others) celebrating the 1000th birthday of the city of Wroclaw, Poland, premiered in 2000; A triple concerto, "The Navigator Tree", commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Composers Forum, premiered in 2000; and "Mirror/Storm", a symphony commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and premiered in 1998. “Continental Harmony”, a PBS special that documented the development and premiere of “The Navigator Tree”[15] won a CINE Golden Eagle Award.[16] His CD "Instruments of Change" was released on Point/Polygram in 1994.

Lanier's work with Asian instruments can be heard extensively on the soundtrack to "Three Seasons" (1999), which was the first film ever to win both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival. He and Mario Grigorov are currently scoring a new film, The Third Wave, premiering at Sundance in 2007. He is working with Terry Riley on a collaborative opera to be titled "Bastard, the First."

Lanier has also pioneered the use of Virtual Reality in musical stage performance with his band Chromatophoria, which has toured around the world as a headline act in venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival. He plays virtual instruments and uses real instruments to guide events in virtual worlds.

Philosophical and technological ideas

Some of Lanier's speculation involves what he dubbed "post-symbolic communication." An example is found in the April 2006 issue of Discover, in his column on cephalopods (i.e., the various species of octopus, squid, and related molluscs).[17] Many cephalopods are able to morph their bodies, including changing the pigmentation and texture of their skin, as well as forming complex shape imitations with their limbs. Lanier sees this behavior, especially as exchanged between two octopuses, as a direct behavioral expression of thought.

In Edge magazine in May 2006, Lanier criticized the sometimes-claimed omniscience of collective wisdom (including expressions such as Wikipedia with the article about him as an example), describing it as "digital Maoism".[18] He writes "If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots."[18] This critique is further explored in an interview with him at the Philosopher's Zone where he is critical of the denatured effect which "removes the scent of people".[19]

In December 2006 Lanier followed up his critique of the collective wisdom with an article in Edge titled "Beware the Online Collective." [20] Lanier writes:

I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob.

and that:

What's to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It's amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It's time to think about that power on a moral basis.


Classical music
Instruments of Change (1994) [21]

Video Games
Moondust -- C64
Alien Garden -- Atari 800

'Finding Humanity in the Interface: Capacity Atrophy or Augmentation?' A debate between Jaron Lanier and Will Wright from the Accelerating Change 2004 conference.
Video of Jaron Lanier speaking at a Film Festival
Video of Jaron Lanier's "McLuhan Ramp" Lecture

Interview with Jaron Lanier on Music
Coding from Scratch: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier, Part 1
The Future of Virtual Reality: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier, Part 2
Brown, David Jay; Novick, Rebecca McClen (1995). Voices from the edge: Conversations with Jerry Garcia, Ram Dass, Annie Sprinkle, Matthew Fox, Jaron Lanier, & others. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press. ISBN 0-89594-732-3.
Interview by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Counterpoint program; Lanier strongly criticises both wikipedia and singularitarianism

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