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THE NEW, IMPROVED REALITY : Will the Ultimate Connection Between Humans and Computers Become the Ultimate Escape?

July 21, 1991|A. J. S. RAYL | A. J. S. Rayl is a writer-author living in the real world of Malibu. Her work has appeared in Omni and Rolling Stone.

"There's a huge amount of misinformation about what VR is," Lanier says, leaning carefully back onto the sofa. "A lot of stories exaggerate the current state of the art, giving the impression that there's a kind of photorealism or real simulation of everyday experience, which, in fact, there is not."

VR is not glitch-free. Depending on how quickly you move in a virtual world, there can be a lag in the simulated world's response to your changed perspective. Computer processing power is limited, after all. Generating a detailed digital image in 3-D requires hours of computation for every frame of every picture, and the more detail or information you put in, the more difficult it is for the computer to instantaneously manipulate it.

Virtual worlds are usually cartoon-like, and the images can appear fuzzy--the sophistication of the headsets and the precision of the programming vary, depending on the system and the purpose. The NASA Martian terrains are more realistic than, say, VPL's Alice in Wonderland. "Industrial worlds take a long time to build because of all the detail that must be accurate," Lanier says. "For worlds in which you're just sharing imagination, that kind of precision detail is not as crucial."

The technology is, however, advancing. During the past year, VPL increased detail and depth by adding texture and radiosity (a feature that alters the lighting to fit the user's needs) to virtual worlds. The company also has just introduced its third-generation EyePhones HRX , and the images are as crisp as those you'd see on television. A third-generation DataGlove, complete with tactile sensation, is in the works.

The advent of tactile sensation has led many to speculate about virtual sex. Lanier rolls his eyes. "A virtual woman or man is going to be a very dull plaything indeed," he says. "It's a ridiculous idea and will probably exist only on the level of those blowup party dolls."

The public has also been confused, Lanier says, by the psychedelic-drug metaphors. "The only reason that that idea is around is because Tim Leary is now making something of a living talking about VR," Lanier says. Leary has been touting virtual reality as "the trip of the '90s--without chemicals." Not exactly an apt comparison; with VR, the user is always in control and, as is not the case with psychedelic drugs, can stop the experience at any time.

"To me, all of this is just poisoning the ideological well," says Lanier. "There are many reasons why VR is an amazing experience. For one thing, VR doesn't have the mandatory-ness that reality has. You can do and be anything or anyone in VR, which gives you an incredible sense of freedom and control of the world.

"But VR is significant because, and this may sound strange, it re-creates the commons. Especially in California. We see less of each other than any other society in history. We tool around in our little bubbles called cars, sit in cubicles and look at screens and we're always sitting and looking at the world through painted glass. VR--though it's virtual--re-creates the commons, actually an expanded commons."

Imagine 15 years in the future, you go home, put on sunglasses and a glove and you see a virtual shelf with fishbowls on it. In one is the City Council meeting, in another is a shopping center, in another a baseball game. You put your hand in one bowl and it grows giant all around you. Then you're in that world. You will be using a VR network so that world also includes everyone else who chose that virtual world at that time. These are real people, though their appearance is virtual, and you can communicate with them. Unlike computer conferencing networks or the home access network Prodigy, VR is, Lanier stresses, "a place where people can meet, not only in body but also in mind. It's better than a park in the middle of town."

With VR you make imagination real. "That," he says, "could be as exciting as sharing wonderful, far-out dreams or as mundane as making kitchens." At a Matsushita-owned department store in Tokyo, a VPL system does, in fact, help design kitchens. If customers don't like the placement of the refrigerator or the cabinets, they simply "pick" them up and move them.

Virtual reality dates back to the '60s and Ivan E. Sutherland. Considered the father of virtual reality, Sutherland developed the first computer-aided design system. At a 1965 industry conference, Sutherland described the "Ultimate Display," where the computer graphics screen served as a window into another world, where objects look real, feel real and move realistically. Three years later, he created the first head-mounted display at the University of Utah. It featured two small cathode-ray-tube monitors, suspended from the ceiling and strapped to the viewer's head.

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