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The Grill: Aaron Walsh

An early interest in virtual reality blossomed into a passion for education environments that can engage students through interactive visualization.

August 24, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - Aaron E. Walsh's career path isn't strewn with traditional milestones. Since the age of 18, when he was hired as a computer equipment operator at Boston College, where he now teaches, Walsh has been pretty single-minded about one thing: bolstering education through the innovative use of virtual reality technology.

After five years at the college (where officials hadn't a clue he was still a teenager when they hired him), Walsh founded Mantis Development Corp., a software firm that specializes in digital media and network computing. He then used several million dollars in profits from that venture to launch and personally fund the Media Grid, a public infrastructure for 3-D and virtual reality content. Now 39, Walsh travels around the globe, tirelessly promoting virtual reality technology standards and the Media Grid's immersive education learning system. Immersive education combines interactive virtual reality and sophisticated digital media with collaborative online course environments. Ultimately, Walsh's vision is to help create a world in which a state-of-the-art education is freely available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.


Name: Aaron E. Walsh
Title: Director
Favorite nonwork pastime: Walking
Most interesting thing people don't know about him: "I hate to walk."

Favorite vice: Miami
Dream dinner guests: "Attila the Hun and Mary, Queen of Scots. Just imagine the appetizers."

Tell me about your early experiences with virtual reality. In about fifth grade, when I was learning to program -- I was one of those kids who was taken to college at a really young age -- what interested me most were the college kids around me making video games. I would go in to my mom's purse, take quarters and walk the half mile to Safeway to play Asteroids or Centipede. But I also knew all I was doing was playing. When I was around 18, I took a pretty hard line with myself and decided if I'm going to constantly spend my time in virtual reality, I'm going to work in virtual reality, not just play.

What happened then? I built my first virtual reality system from scratch in about 1990. It was built on a Macintosh and [a friend and I] had stereo headsets and a power glove so you could reach out and manipulate things. We were a spaceship going down corridors. I had been playing this video game on a keyboard, but when I was in a truly 3-D immersive environment, it was an amazing feeling. I still remember the two of us waving our arms around controlling this spaceship. That's what started it all for me.

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