Calif. virtual reality pioneer breaks up French get patents

December 08, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

FOSTER CITY, Calif. -- VPL Research, a small company that popularized a radical technology called virtual reality, has crashed amid squabbles that led to the departure of its founder and the shift of key patent rights to a large French electronics company.

VPL, which once employed about 50 workers, ran out of cash last week and laid off its remaining staff of about a dozen. The departed include Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked Pied Piper of virtual reality, who started the company in his garage in 1985.

Control of VPL has shifted to Thomson CSF, a French conglomerate that invested in VPL through its venture-capital arm and made loans to the company that were secured by VPL's patent portfolio. Rights to those patents shifted to Thomson when VPL failed to repay the loans.

Jean-Jacques Grimaud, a longtime VPL executive who resigned this year after disputes with Mr. Lanier, has returned as chief executive and says he plans to rejuvenate the company.

Mr. Lanier, who bitterly criticizes the actions of Mr. Grimaud and Thomson, has vowed to start another company.

The dispute may have wide repercussions. Virtual reality -- which creates the illusion that computer users are moving in simulated three-dimensional space -- has been widely touted as a breakthrough concept in such fields as pilot training, architecture and product design. Makers of arcade games have begun equipping users with special goggles to create similar virtual-reality effects.

VPL sold combinations of goggles and other components of virtual-reality systems. It has several basic patents covering the technology, including patents on a special glove to control movements in simulations.

It is not clear whether Thomson plans to use the newly acquired patents to hamper potential competitors.

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