As the 20th century hurtles to a close, the dividing line blurs between the real world and the fantasies that, until recently, were confined to the realm of science fiction. New technologies are now overtaking society with such speed that many people barely understand one before it is replaced by another.
• In classrooms of the future, teachers and textbooks take a backseat to a revolutionary new technology that lets students experience the sensation of the lesson— holding a molecule, perhaps, or walking on a famous battlefield of the past.
• Architects in a 21st-century showroom may be able to lead their clients through computer-generated simulations of buildings, redesigning them to suit the customers’ needs as they go.
As the 20th century hurtles to a close, the dividing line blurs between the real world and the fantasies that, until recently, were confined to the realm of science fiction. New technologies are now overtaking society with such speed that many people barely understand one before it is replaced by another. The next wave— imaginary and perfectly possible—rises out of a new technology, barely in its infancy, that has the potential to explode on society as the new century unfolds. It is called virtual reality, and its proponents say that it could profoundly affect everyday life, as well as business, entertainment and dozens of professions. Some futurists say that the technology could even be exploited to fulfill sexual fantasies—or to replace drugs as a way of escaping from reality into richly detailed worlds of the imagination. Said Jaron Lanier, a 32-year-old California computer whiz who coined the term virtual reality: “By the turn of the century, it will no longer be a novelty. It will put movies and television to shame. It will be a tool of the imagination, every child’s dream.”
Already, simple systems exist that allow a user to enter the world of virtual reality by putting on a headset equipped with small, image-bearing screens. Those systems immerse the user in the sights and sounds of a computer-generated world. By using a specially fitted DataGlove, he can even have the experience of touching or moving objects in “virtual space.” While American, European, Japanese and Canadian scientists race to develop the technology, architects, psychiatrists, surgeons, pilots and other professionals are finding ways to apply it to their work. Several computer companies already manufacture equipment called image generators that can produce detailed and realistic three-dimensional moving images in full color. Said Henry Fuchs, a computer scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a leading researcher on virtual reality: “Dozens of people in labs are working on various aspects of the technology.”
One early commercial application of virtual reality is in the field of entertainment. Some firms are marketing equipment that lets users play what is, in effect, a glorified video game. In April, Toronto-based Virtuality Canada acquired eight virtual reality systems, at a cost of $60,000 to $85,000 each, from W. Industries Ltd. of Leicester, England. Virtuality introduced the equipment to Canadians at Toronto’s annual Canadian Na-
tional Exhibition in late August, then installed it in two suburban Toronto shopping malls.
On a recent Friday night, both Virtuality games at the Cyber Centre arcade in Toronto’s Sherway Gardens mall attracted a steady crowd of new and repeat players, almost all of them teenagers. Robert Gunnyon, an 18-year-old Scarborough high school student, and his girlfriend Denise Roy, 15, drove about 30 km to the mall in the west end of Toronto to play the game. “It’s incredible,” said Roy. “It puts you right inside the game. It’s very realistic.” Said Wally Knauer, a 20year-old employee at the arcade: “It’s the way of the future. Every arcade is going to have one.”
To play a Virtuality game, users wear a headset and hold a plastic device called a Spacestick that resembles the handle of a pistol. In one game, called Dactyl Nightmare, the player, immersed in a three-dimensional world, sees a brightly colored platform with staircases leading up to other levels. Outside the platforms and staircases, the background is solid black. At unpredictable intervals, a giant bird resembling a prehistoric pterodactyl swoops towards the player, who can shoot at it by aiming with the Spacestick and firing with a thumb button at the top of the device. As the player moves his arm, a computer-generated image of a hand and a gun makes corresponding movements.
Some analysts predict a limitless future for virtual reality as a tool for entertainment. Some even foresee a world in which “virtual sex” could be widely used to supplement the real thing. Frank Ogden, a Vancouver-based futurist, says that scientists will some day develop body suits capable of receiving computerized information that simulates the physical effects of sexual intercourse. Ogden said that a person wearing such a body suit will be able to watch a simulated sexual scene through a headset and feel the sensations of a participant. Said Ogden: “It will be the ultimate safe sex. You can’t get AIDS through virtual reality sex.”
Cyberspace: Other analysts see a potentially dark side to virtual reality. In his 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson, a Vancouver-based science fiction writer, depicts a young man’s obsession with a computer-generated universe called cyberspace, a form of virtual reality (page 44). Some experts working on the development of Japanese virtual reality systems have predicted that, in a sophisticated form, the new technology could prove addictive, and ultimately dangerous.
Still, most proponents contend that the benefits of virtual reality will outweigh any potential risks. Lanier said that by the end of the century virtual reality will be a major form of home entertainment, and that consumer systems will be linked by electronic networks. He predicted that homeowners and their neighbors will enter the same virtual spaces, and interact with each other. Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, added that
PROPONENTS OF VIRTUAL REALITY SAY THAT IT WILL CHANGE THE WAY PEOPLE LIVE AND DO BUSINESS
virtual reality could revolutionize television news programming by allowing viewers the sensation of being immersed in stories such as those about wars and disasters, without suffering the consequences.
But for the most part, scientists and other professionals are devoting themselves to exploring more prosaic applications of virtual reality. Dr. Richard Satava, a surgeon at the Silas B. Hayes Army Hospital in Fort Ord, Calif., said that virtual reality could become a valuable tool to both medical students and practising physicians. Last year, he conducted a gall bladder operation on a computer-generated image of a human torso. Satava said that he and fellow researchers developed a computer program to generate images of a torso and all the organs in a human abdomen. He said that the images were depicted in a simplified form.
Satava added that during the simulated operation he wore a headset and DataGlove manufactured by VPL Research Inc., a company founded by Jaron Lanier (page 48). As Satava moved the glove, he manipulated a hand within a computer-generated scene, making the necessary incisions to open an abdomen and remove the gall bladder. “I was working with cartoon-level graphics,” Satava said.
“But our ultimate goal is to produce graphics that are good enough to fool the surgeon.”
Visual: American and German military pilots are already immersing themselves in computer-simulated worlds through a helmet-mounted visual display system designed and manufactured by Montrealbased CAE Electronics Ltd., one of the world’s leading manufacturers of aviation flight simulators. Charles Gainer, chief of aviation research
and development at the U.S. Army Research Institute in Fort Rucker, Ala., said that pilots take training in flight simulators while wearing CAE helmet systems that immerse them in computer-generated airspace. Usually, a pilot sitting in a detailed mockup of an Apache attack helicopter’s cockpit wears a helmet that is
linked to an image generator. The pilot simulates flying by manipulating two control sticks and he responds to an entirely visual world that he sees through the helmet. A Salt Lake City, Utah, firm, Evans & Sutherland Computer Corp., produces the image generator for the
army. Gainer said that with the equipment, a pilot can experience day or night flying in any kind of weather, encounter other traffic in the air or take part in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat. “You can look out the cockpit canopy and see the missile pods and rockets,” said Gainer, “but they’re not really there.”
Virtual reality may play a role in other types of training. Andrea Apara, a vice-president of Fiat Auto SPA in Turin, Italy, said that his company hoped to use virtual reality systems to train workers in the operation and maintenance of sophisticated robotic systems used in car assembly plants. Said Apora: “We can use this technology as a powerful tool.” And in Tokyo, Matsushita Electric Works has equipped a Tokyo retail outlet that sells kitchen cabinets, counters and appliances with VPL headsets and gloves. Customers using the virtual reality equipment can immerse themselves in computer-simulated kitchens and even open or close drawers and doors. An inspection through virtual reality can help customers decide whether the components of a kitchen are properly arranged, and whether door handles are the correct height. Company officials said that about 15 customers have bought kitchen units g after testing them in virtual reality.
£ Athletes, too, have turned to virtual I reality to enhance their performance. “ Before this year’s Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, American bobsledder Brian Shimer participated in virtual reality training arranged by Silicon Graphics, Inc. at the company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., 50 km south of San Francisco. The company programmed a trip down the Albertville bobsled course into its image generator, which is capable of producing
three-dimensional color images at a rate of 60 per second. With the image flashing on a six-foot-by-eight-foot screen in front of him and steering a four-man bobsled connected to the image generator, Shimer made the run down the the computerized course dozens of times.
Impact: Virtual reality is likely to have a major impact on the entertainment and amusement industries. A Toronto company called The Vivid Group has pioneered what staff members call unencumbered virtual reality. Company co-director Vincent John Vincent, 33, said that the firm’s Mandala VR System allows a person to interact with computer-generated images without being immersed in them by wearing a headset. Instead, the user stands in front of a video camera and his image appears on a screen against a background of computer generated images. By running on the spot, the user appears to be running through a kaleidoscope of changing images. Or he may see images of drums surrounding his image on the screen. He can play the instruments by moving his hands so that his image on the screen strikes the drums, and the Mandala system responds with the sound of a hand striking a drum. The system can be used as an educational tool that allows children to be surrounded by images of letters. They can then practise spelling by picking the letters required to make certain words.
The Vivid Group, which began developing its system 10 years ago, so far has sold 200 units at prices ranging from $7,000 to $20,000. One was a popular attraction at Canada’s pavilion at the Expo ’92 world fair in Seville, Spain, last summer, said Vincent. The company has also sold a system to one of the Smithsonian Institu-
tion museums in Washington, D.C., and installed others for short-term display in about 60 other museums around the world. Said Vincent: “We are creating new universes that people can step into and play with.”
Still, while several firms are already making virtual reality available to the public, most proponents of the technology agree that it is so far basically in the development stages. And they say that there are several major technical hurdles to overcome before virtual reality can fulfil its promise. For one thing, the quality of
the graphics used in most virtual reality systems is still relatively crude. “Television has raised expectations,” said Edward Costello, director of sales and marketing for Vermont-based Polhemus Inc., a high-technology firm. “People expect to see a leaf on every branch instead of figures that look like blocks. Computer graphics have got to catch up with TV.” To do that, experts are searching for a way of putting detailed, high-quality images on screens no bigger than a matchbox. “The headsets are too bulky and the screens inside them are the worst possible television screens,” said Fuchs. He added that with the technology currently available, it is impossible to display detailed, high-resolution images on small screens. Said Fuchs: “It’s like having a million-dollar sound system and playing it through 50-cent speakers.” Disorientation: Most existing virtual reality systems can also cause an unpleasant sensation resembling motion sickness. Costello said that the systems rely on a tracking device that records the movement of a user’s head. That mechanism relays the information to the image-generating computer, which in turn produces the corresponding images. The entire process takes just a split second, but even that small time lag can induce disorientation and nausea. Added NASA’s Ellis: “I had a headset on for an hour and a half one time. I had the world’s greatest splitting headache afterward.” But Costello said that last August Polhemus introduced a mechanism to sharply reduce the time needed to track movement and produce new images.
Besides trying to improve the visual side, virtual reality innovators are also searching for more realistic sound. Louis Gehring, a Torontobased computer graphics expert, says that he has developed a circuit board that puts a feeling of direction and motion into recorded music or sound. Conventional, two-dimensional recorded sound lacks reality, Gehring said, because the listener always knows it is coming out of a speaker. According to Gehring, his device, which he is marketing under the name Focal Point 3D Audio, can make it seem to a listener that an automobile is approaching from a specific direction, and then receding in another.
Despite the amount of development that remains, many scientists working on virtual reality admit to an underlying belief in the potential power of the technology. It is a belief that flows from their dreams of the day when people will routinely switch on a computer and put on a headset to recreate history, examine a microscopic element, experience outer space or go shopping for new dining room furniture. In those dreams, computers are creating worlds that are all but indistinguishable from, and with fewer problems than, the real thing.