Mars? Why not Mars? Ever since I was a child, curled up in an overstuffed chair reading Ray Bradbury, I dreamed about venturing into space. I remembered Pritchard in "The Martian Chronicles": "He wanted to go to Mars on the rocket. He went down to the rocket field in the early morning and yelled through the wire fence at the men in uniform that he wanted to go to Mars. . . ."
I wanted to go to Mars, too. Pritchard had been hauled away, but I'd made it past the wire fence. Now, my mission was about to begin. I slid into position behind the computer, slipped on a DataGlove and adjusted my headgear. . .
Suddenly, the red planet hung before me, tranquil in the vast reaches of space. I could detect the lumps and bumps that were mountains, the pockmarks that were craters. All the technology I needed to maneuver myself was wired into my glove. To fly, I simply pointed in the direction I wanted to go. My thumb served as my throttle, and the more I bent it, the faster I flew. To fly backward, I pointed with two fingers. To stop, I opened my hand. It was a new sensation, sort of like driving a car with a clutch for the first time. After several minutes of lurching forward and backward and stopping abruptly, I got the hang of it and zoomed in to cruise over the planet's surface.
At one point, I slowed to a hover and attempted a landing. I pointed downward, bent my thumb slowly and made a wobbly touchdown in the middle of Valles Marineris--a barren, desolate valley surrounded by craggy, rust-red rocks. I studied the gravelly ground, half expecting to see a Martian lizard dash out from under the rocks. I soared upward and flew around the valley, mesmerized by the alien surface.
All too quickly, it was time to go. I pulled my headset off. As easy as clicking ruby slippers, I was back home on Earth, sitting in the Virtual Planetary Exploration lab at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, greeted by a beaming Michael McGreevy, principal engineer and research scientist in NASA's Human Interface Research Branch. "Pretty compelling, isn't it?" he asks.
You see, I hadn't gone to Mars on a rocket, but by way of virtual reality, an emerging computer technology that allows you to "break through" the computer screen and enter a three-dimensional world created on software. In this case, I was projected into a fairly realistic, 3-D, digital model of Mars computed from electronic images sent from the Viking orbiters and landers--the same virtual world that NASA scientists and astronauts are using to "explore" Mars.
Touted as the high technology of the '90s, virtual reality--or VR, as it's known--represents the next frontier in the relationship between humans and computers and is destined to change our lives in countless ways. It's been described as a venture through the looking glass, the ultimate communications device, life-saving technology, even, much to the chagrin of VR pioneers, as electronic LSD. Simply, it's a revolutionary technology with applications that extend to just about every field--space exploration, medicine, communication, architecture, military training, education and, of course, entertainment.
VR can take you places--like Mars--that otherwise would be impossible to visit, or to other places that don't really exist. It works like this: You put on a headset and glove (or a full bodysuit), both of which are connected to a computer. The headset, composed of two small liquid-crystal display screens like those on a Sony Watchman (one for each eye) and three layers of magnifying lenses, floods your field of vision with the 3-D virtual world, giving you the illusion of being in it. The headset is equipped with a magnetic tracking device so that the movements you make, say, turning your head, are relayed to the virtual world and your perspective changes accordingly.
The glove, which is wired with fiber-optic cables and sensors that register the motions of your fingers and hand, allows you to move and interact--grasping and even moving virtual objects. A cartoon-like image of the glove appears in the virtual world, so you know where you are in relationship to the environment's terrain, objects and other inhabitants. Soon, tactile feedback will allow you to touch something virtual and feel it as if it were real.