Simulating Reality

March 26, 2001 by Mike Weiner

Today’s VR simulators, some using powerful supercomputers, allow us to experience realities that would be impossible in the real world, but their history actually goes back to ingenious mechanical musical instruments of the 19th century.

CEO, Biophan, LLC & GreatBio Technologies, Inc.

Originally published March 26, 2001 on

I do a lot of traveling, so I get to check out the latest virtual-reality simulators around the country. These are good indicators of where virtual reality technologies are taking us.

  • At Orlando, at Walt Disney World’s CyberSpace Mountain, I used a PC to design my own roller coaster ride, and then climbed into a full-motion simulator and went for a wild ride. Called “Design Then Ride, it spins around and moves back and forth on two axes.
  • In Tucson, Arizona, I visited the Pima Air & Space Museum. There, amidst the vintage planes and the SR-71 Blackbird (the world’s fastest plane, which flies at over 2,000 miles and hour and went from Washington, DC to LA in only 64 minutes) a multi-person full motion simulator took us on an imaginary Time Machine back to the age of the Dinosaurs and then to ancient Egypt, amidst the throngs building the pyramids. It was great fun. They have four different rides you can choose from.
  • At EPCOT, I sat in an immersive virtual reality display that allowed me to fly through the Sistene Chapel and view every inch of the walls and the ceiling from any distance and any perspective.
  • At SGI (Silicon Graphics, Inc.) in Mountain View, California, I sat in the control seat of a 180 degree full-motion simulation of a stealth B-2 bomber flying over Iraq, simulating the real terrain and the anti-aircraft gun locations and other locales, and allowing me to practice bombing runs, using two supercomputers. This is the same software that helped B-2 bomber pilots train for Gulf War missions. Last year, the Hayden Planetarium announced a planetarium using virtual reality technology form Silicon Graphics.
  • At Boeing in Seattle, I went on a virtual walk-through of a Boeing 777 aircraft. The CAD/CAM drawings of the entire aircraft were loaded into a VR program that allowed customers and engineers to walk through the entire airplane, examine the overhead compartments, design the configuration of the plane, even examine the hydraulic and electrical systems behind the panels and fly through the interior, moving through floors into the cargo compartment!
  • The Northeast Parallel Architectures Center at Syracuse University has used supercomputers to digitize the entire State of New York so school children can fly through any portion of the state from their school computers.
  • In my local arcade there is a virtual ski machine where you can ski down incredibly challenging slopes and avoiding trees and rocks while enjoying magnificent vistas of the Swiss Alps. It’s truly remarkable, a modern day virtual reality adventure, for $1 a ride.
  • Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is today one of the most popular programs on the market. Knowledge Adventure also has a flight simulator program for kids called Kid Pilot.
  • One of my favorite virtual reality sessions to date was on MTV, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers video for their melodic Californication track came on, and the band members starred in a fascinating fantasy of a future virtual world where they surfboarded through the air and ran through a wild series of virtual worlds.

Musical Origins

But VR simulation actually started in the 19th century. An incredible explosion of automatic musical machines spread all over the world in a hundred forms, from the band organs that were attached to every merry go round to huge “orchestrions” with dozens of simulated instruments, some as big as the stage of a theater and some even simulating an entire orchestra. A few working devices remain today in a museum such as Bellm’s Cars and Music of Yesteryear, in Sarasota, Florida.

Then came player reed organs and player banjos, player harps and player saxophones, and the incredible Hupfeld Violano Phonolizt, which simulated not only the playing of a piano with multiple levels of expression, but three violins which were played with a huge rotating horsehair bow, with solenoids that move the violin to the bow, and a little device that shakes the violin to create a vibrato effect. It might sound like a Rube Goldberg contraption, but I heard one play once at the home of a private collector in NYC, and the music was so beautiful and soulful it made me want to cry.

Then, in the first part of the twentieth century, the ultimate musical simulation device was built and exhibited with great fanfare at the 1916 World’s Fair: the “reproducing piano.” This was a piano with such miraculous ability to reproduce the playing of a human artist that, at a demonstration at Carnegie Hall, a human pianist behind a curtain on stage could not be distinguished from a reproducing piano by a theater full of music critics and aficionados.

These were full grand pianos, some as long as 9 feet, which were equipped with special mechanisms that reproduced every nuance and subtlety of the human artist, even emulating the striking of a chord where the pinky hits a note ever so much stronger than the other fingers, and the crescendos move through the range of intensity from barely audible to shaking the room with intensity.

I know, I have two of these, fully restored, in my home in upper New York State. One, a 6’5″ Steinway, was built in 1926, has a Duo-Art mechanism, and I have original rolls cut by Rachmaninoff and Paderwski. And the other, a 5’8″ Chickering grand piano, has an Ampico mechanism, with music played by Arthur Rubinstein and a later recording made by Liberace of the Godfather. They are truly amazing, and really do capture the actual playing of the original artists as if a ghost were sitting at the keyboard.

These machines worked with air pneumatics. The ingenuity to replicate the subtlety of musical artistry was, it turns out, also led to the world’s first flight simulator.

In the early 20th century, pilot students were sent aloft to solo after only a few hours of ground instruction, sometimes even less. An alarming number of the would-be pilots would crash on their first landing attempt, taking out the plane, the student, and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on the ground when they landed.

Barnstorming pilot Ed Link, whose father owned the Link Player Piano and Theater Organ Company in Binghampton, NY, was a wizard in building and repairing player pianos and the huge theater organs, including those that played from a paper roll, that were still the rage just before the advent of high quality phonographs and long playing records.

Ed constructed the first flight simulator in his barn in Binghampton. This was an amazing contraption that looked like the fuselage of an airplane and, when you sat in it, it would move about simulating the exact feelings of a plane in the air.

He fueled his dream of training pilots in simulators by inventing the world’s first electric sign and flying over Long Island with a wing full of lights lit up with a programmable advertising message. It’s not true that when you build it they will come. Ed had little luck getting anyone to take his invention seriously, and he only survived the depression by placing the flight simulators in arcades where children of all ages could climb into the cockpit and fly the make believe airplane.

It was only in 1939, when England went to war with Germany, that the utility of flight simulators was realized, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) ordered 1,000 of Ed’s machines, starting him on the road to fame and fortune. When the US entered the war and had to quickly train thousands of pilots, they, too, ordered thousands of flight simulators, and Ed’s business, the Link Flight Simulator company was underway. The company was eventually bought by Singer (the sewing machine people) who sold flight simulators for jet planes, 747’s, and even spaceships and lunar landers.

The industry of flight simulators was born, and today you can take a ride in one with a dozen of your friends in many museums and country fairs and trade shows.