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Almost Reality
A Look at Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality, The Next Trend in Computer Simulation, is on its Way...

"'The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,' said the voice over, 'in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.' On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns. demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. 'Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...'" (Neuromancer, William Gibson)

Virtual Reality... the ability to do the impossible, to see the inconceptual, and to touch worlds that do not exist. When William Gibson wrote the book Neuromancer and first coined the term "cyberspace", he never imagined what he was beginning. "It was supposed to be ironic," says Gibson, "the book was really a metaphor about how I felt about the media. I didn't expect anyone to actually go out and build one of these things."

But, while Gibson and others fear the possibility of virtual reality becoming more dangerous and addictive than any drug, and compare it to "freebasing American television", many other people foresee virtual reality as an electronic Utopia. They not only see it as the ultimate playground, but as an invaluable training tool. Furthermore, many people believe that the true power of virtual reality lies not in its ability to allow the user to enter a fantasy world, but in its ability to expand a users perception of the real world, from the very tiny atom to immense and invisible radiation waves.

What is virtual reality? Virtual Reality (VR), also known as Artificial Reality or Cyberspace, is a special form of computer simulation. Unlike many other computer simulations which mimic a happening or event, VR is a computer simulated environment. With the use of special interfaces (means of communicating with the computer, such as a joystick or keyboard), a user can "travel" through a computer generated world and interact with objects in it.

Some of the more common VR interfaces include the Data Glove and the Eyephones Head Mounted Display. The Data Glove is a black nylon glove with optical fibers laced around the fingers. The fibers have been intentionally surface damaged in areas, allowing light to escape when the fingers are bent. By measuring the light levels returned by the optic fibers, the computer can determine finger position. The position of the users hand in space is measured by two triple axis coils mounted on the back of the glove. A receiver placed nearby measures the orientation of the coils. A similar tracking device is mounted on the Eyephones to measure head position. The headset also contains a pair of backlit color LCD displays to give the user a 3-D view of his "world".

Virtual reality is different than most current video games because of its level of interaction and feedback. During a VR simulation, the user has complete freedom to move and manipulate his environment in any way he chooses--unlike many video games that limit the user to a set number of choices. VR also attempts to produce real-like feedback; if the user looks down, he will see the virtual ground. Many VR headsets also include stereo speakers that allow virtual objects to "produce" sounds that appear to be coming from a specific direction. New variations on the Data Glove are also being developed that include bladders to provide a sense of touch.

Many different companies and computer labs around the world conduct VR research. While the field is rapidly expanding, Sense8, AutoDesk, and Virtual Programming Languages Research (VPL) continue to be leaders. VPL conducts much of the most sophisticated research, specializing in high-tech, high-cost hardware. AutoDesk, the creator of AutoCAD, caters primarily to architects. Much of their research has gone into creating environments that are an extension of CAD, allowing architects to "walk" through buildings they have just designed. Sense8 focuses on many of the more general uses of VR, using slightly less high-tech--but much cheaper--hardware.

Even the most inexpensive VR hardware is still very costly, however. The Data Glove alone costs around $8500. A complete VR system and software can cost anywhere from $15000 to $250000. Some business systems can be found for less, but most readily available systems are not "true" VR; they can create a fairly good environment, however, they do not allow the user complete freedom in that environment.

While this obviously means that a full virtual reality system isn't something that the average person can pick up at Radio Shack, it doesn't mean that the public doesn't have access to VR. Many cities have virtual reality centers where the public can buy time on a simulator. In New York, a player can take a swing at virtual golf for about $25 an hour. Two different golf games, Par T and InGolf are available. Par T uses digitized photos of actual golf courses, such as Pebble Beach, in its virtual environment. InGolf supposedly provides a more realistic game, however, it uses computer animated images and is less graphics intensive. Both use real golf balls and clubs.

One of the most well known VR centers is the Battletech center in Chicago. For $6, players can spend 10 minutes in one of 12 "Battlemech" VR cockpits, engaged in 31st century-type combat. Players must pilot their armored robot tanks and attempt to destroy the other Battlemechs before being destroyed themselves.

Some low end virtual reality is already available at home. The upcoming game from Virgin software, The 7th Guest , has a virtual-style environment. Mattel's Power Glove is nothing more than a scaled down Data Glove. Some arcade cabinet games, such as Atari's deluxe version of Hard Drivin', are also considered low end VR. While these games may not be virtual reality in its purest form, true VR games can not be far off.

Virtual Reality is more than just a game, however. Many people are interested in its training and research potential. Most experts believe that experience is the best teacher, and VR opens up the possibility of near limitless experience. For example, VR could allow a new doctor to experience surgery without endangering the life of a real patient. VR has been considered as an important design tool as well. A virtual representation of a newly designed object could be used to test it before it is even built. This would allow manufactures to identify design flaws and correct them before production. Many scientists are also interested in VR as a way to enhance their research skills. Not only could it be used to create tangible representations of incredibly tiny objects such as atoms, with the use of telepresence robots (robots that mimic the actions of the user and are fitted with cameras and microphones connected to computers that transform the robot's surroundings into virtual images for the user) researchers could study dangerous places like deep ocean trenches and the inside of volcanos.

The military has a strong interest in virtual reality as well. Most of their research has not only been in using VR as a tool to train pilots, but, more importantly, to train mechanics. VR could allow Air Force mechanics to learn to repair a battle damaged plane without blowing up a real one.

NASA is also very interested in virtual reality. Because the cost of sending someone to space is so high, they see virtual reality as an inexpensive and effective way to train Astronauts. While detailed mock-ups of Space Stations and the Shuttle can and have been built, they cannot simulate the behavior of objects in a weightless environment. NASA believes that using VR to help Astronauts become accustomed to zero-gravity before reaching space will help them use their time more effectively when they get there.

While virtual reality has been improving rapidly--in fact, much more rapidly than many people had anticipated--it still has a way to go before environments as complex as those NASA and the Air Force are trying to create are possible. Most VR environments are still relatively simple, consisting of limited objects rendered from filled polygons. The more complicated and graphic intensive programs tend to suffer from slowdown problems. Many users also complain that the VR gear is too bulky and cumbersome, making it impractical for everyday use.

Technical problems are steadily being solved by improved hardware. Someday, a VR interface may be as small and light as a contact lense, and may project images directly onto the users eye. In fact, Joel Kollin of the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab has already started to develop just such a device. Kollin's interface uses low-wattage laser beams to project an image directly onto the user's retina. While the machine is still rather bulky, and the resolution is only 400x300 pixels (slightly less than television), it is still fast enough to provide realistic animation.

Virtual reality software is beginning to take two very different routes. Some researchers have been seeking to improve the graphics to such a point as to make them more realistic, and therefore, believable. Other VR researchers, such as Myron Krueger, believe that the key is real-time simulations; even if the object doesn't look real, the brain will believe that it's real if the object behaves as if it is real. Krueger states, "Fancy graphics add to the experience only if you can meet the speed requirement. The highly-rendered graphic worlds that others favor only provide a background. When you go to the theater, you may applaud the stagecraft at the beginning, but you don't go to see the set. You expect some action; you expect some drama; you expect some characters. Something better happen pretty quick or you'll split." Programmers of this school of thought center on interaction above complexity in their environments.

Virtual reality, without a doubt, has a long future ahead of it. But, will it be the nightmare Gibson and his colleagues predict? In a world where it is already impossible to determine if an object in a television commercial is real or computer imaging, some fear the worst. If you could have a wholly believable world that could become anything you wished for, just for the asking, would you ever want to leave? Other people fear not virtual reality itself, but the culture associated with it and created by it. VR culture has been in many ways compared to the drug culture, opponents fearing that VR will distort perceptions, transform ideas, and affect the social fabric the way psychedelic drugs did in the 60s. They fear that VR will give users the power to question the status quo. Some people also fear that virtual reality will become another form of racism because it is programmed primarily by white and Asian males.

VR supporters argue otherwise. Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL, believes that VR is not racist, but is, in fact, an incredible social equalizer. "Virtual reality is the ultimate lack of class or race distinctions or any other form of pretense, since all form is variable." In a virtual environment, your form is of your own choosing; you could be male or female, black or white, red, green, purple, a cat, or even a piano. Even Timothy Leary, one of the greatest proponents of VR, does not believe it could ever be a replacement for reality. "Believe me," says Leary, "There are some things only the human body can do. For all its magical properties, virtual reality will never replace sweat." Lanier believes that virtual reality serves to enhance our appreciation of the physical world by reminding us of it.

What will the future hold? No one can say for sure. Some believe that virtual reality will be Heaven, some say Hell. Perhaps, neither. Perhaps virtual reality will simply become a part of our reality, with a unique essence all its own. Or perhaps, as Timothy Leary says, all reality is virtual.


Originally appeared Vol 1, Iss 4 (10-11/92)

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