The day 100 year-old Lyle Becker first tried VR

When I first met Lyle Becker he was just 80 years-old and virtual reality as we understand it today was largely still the stuff of science fiction. Two decades later, my friend Lyle is a feisty centenarian. And today he gets to try VR for the very first time.

Surrounded by friends, family, and several Intel employees, Lyle gets ready for his first adventure into virtual reality, inside a secret VR lab at Intel's campus in Oregon.

Surrounded by friends, family, and several Intel employees, Lyle gets ready for his first adventure into virtual reality, inside a secret VR lab at Intel's campus in Oregon.

Lyle is the liveliest 100 year-old person that I know. He still tries to walk about a mile each and every day, and he’s a delight to be around. He's curious about everything. Especially when it comes to new technology.

Just think for a moment about how much technological change Lyle has seen in his lifetime. When Lyle was a kid he went to a one-room school, by horse. He lived in a home on the prairie with one light bulb and no telephone. And his dad didn't rig up that light bulb until Lyle was 12 years-old. Since then he’s seen the rise of the motor car, the coming of commercial radio and then TV, the democratization of air travel, the nuclear age, jets, rockets, antibiotics, satellite communications, 8-track, digital watches, CDs, cloning, cell phones, the Internet, PCs, social media, streaming video, and so much more. And Lyle has loved it all. Well, perhaps not 8-track.

When asked what he considered to be the most impressive technology breakthrough that he's seen, without hesitation Lyle replied, “GPS”. It's a technology that most of us now take for granted, but if you stop and think about how GPS actually works, it's still amazing stuff.

These days, Lyle’s hearing need a little help from modern technology, and he wears thick glasses to help him see, but his mind and his wit is still as sharp as ever. I hope that I'm as healthy and strong as Lyle is when I'm a hundred years old. Heck, we all do.

Lyle is a regular reader of this blog. He comments on my posts, both here and on Facebook, more than any other reader. He loves technology and is fascinated by what’s coming in the future, whether it be self-driving cars, hearables, or mixed reality.

Lyle’s daughter, Patty, is a close friend of mine. This afternoon, on a warm, blue-sky day, Patty drove Lyle out to Intel’s Jones Farm campus in Hillsboro so that he could visit Intel’s expansive VR lab and experience virtual reality for the very first time. And wow, did he LOVE it.

Lyle wasn’t really quite sure what to expect. I asked him what he anticipated virtual reality might be like and he said, “I’ve seen 3D movies. I’m guessing it’ll be a bit like that”. I told him to expect that it would feel like he had zoomed through the screen, and was actually now inside the movie itself.

As the Intel engineer slipped the HTC Vive headset over Lyle’s head, a small crowd of friends, family, and Intel employees had gathered to share the moment.

100 year-old Lyle Becker tries virtual reality for the first time.

100 year-old Lyle Becker tries virtual reality for the first time.

The first stop on Lyle’s tour of VR was a trip to the bottom of the ocean, thanks to and app called theBlu: Encounter. Lyle sat comfortably in a chair as he was virtually immersed in water and surrounded by jellyfish, turtles, and a beautifully-rendered coral reef. Lyle doesn't like to make a fuss about most things. He calmly takes everything in his stride. Perhaps that's why he's lived so long. And so when Lyle said "Yeah, this is good. Very good", and later "that's amazing", those who know Lyle well knew that he was mightily impressed by what he was seeing.

Using the hand controls didn’t come very naturally and it took a few minutes for Lyle to figure out how to move around and interact with the virtual seascape, but within a few minutes he was prodding at jellyfish and having a whale of a time (pun intended).

When I asked him afterwards which experience was the most impressive, it was this first one. Often I find that it’s the very first VR experience that you have that stays with you the most. For me, it was a Hubble space telescope demo that I’ll always remember, since that was my very first experience of high-quality VR.

Lyle’s next experience was to hover thousands of miles above the surface of the planet and to fly over the streets of Florence and around Devil’s Tower, thanks to Google Earth VR. The experience wasn’t intuitive and it took Lyle quite some time to get the hang of zooming in and out, and moving around the planet. Most VR experiences still need some work before they are as natural and intuitive as it would be to just use your hands. Today, users need to be trained on how to use a complicated combination of triggers, buttons, and joypads. Brain-machine interfaces, natural language voice interfaces, and high-fidelity hand sensors like the ones from Leap Motion, can’t come soon enough.

My-Hanh Eastep helps Lyle get ready for his virtual flight.

My-Hanh Eastep helps Lyle get ready for his virtual flight.

In his younger days, Lyle was a pilot. He served in World War II, flying over the Himalayas between India and China. He was also a commercial pilot for over a quarter of a century, and later became a flight instructor and an air traffic controller. Needless to say, Lyle knows his way around a plane and loves to fly. The Intel engineers had saved the best experience for last.

As a special treat, Lyle’s final VR experience of the day was to sit in the cockpit of a single-engine plane, courtesy of the very latest in VR flight simulation technology, AeroFly FS2. Using two joysticks, one controlling flight and the other controlling throttle, Lyle took to the air. It was a delight to watch him flying again. Lyle was back in his element, flying around the skies with ease.

“Is there a place that I can land this thing?”, he asked. Since it was early-access software, Lyle was told that no, there was nowhere for him to land yet, but he could crash the plane into the ground if he wanted to. “No, I don’t want to do that. That’s not right. I think I’ll just keep on flying”.

Lyle showing us how it's done as he flies around inside the virtual world created by AeroFly FS2.

Lyle showing us how it's done as he flies around inside the virtual world created by AeroFly FS2.

Virtual reality is an amazing technology that is able to transport people in time and space. VR has an incredible set of potential applications for training, simulation, communication, entertainment and more. But today it was used to reunite an old pilot with the freedom of the skies. And it was a joy to watch.

When asked what he would like to see VR be able to do in the future, Lyle said he would love to be able to experience Mardi Gras on Bourbon street and listen to the Dixie bands play. One day he would love to get a headset of his own so that he can use it to watch YouTube videos from around the world, and experience them in the comfort of his own room.

Wonderful to see Lyle again. He's happy to see me, I promise. He just doesn't smile that much. :)

Wonderful to see Lyle again. He's happy to see me, I promise. He just doesn't smile that much. :)

When told that the next step in VR headsets was wireless technology, Lyle quickly responded, “I don’t have that much time left, so you better get busy with that.”

My thanks to My-Hanh Eastep, Aisha Bowen, Bryan Pawlowski, and the other folks at Intel that made this all possible today.

Most of all, my thanks go to Lyle for being such a great inspiration. For always being so curious. And for being one of my most avid followers. I hope Lyle had as much fun today experiencing VR as we all had watching him try it.

Lyle can't wait to see what VR will make possible next. And neither can I.