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FUTURE WORLD : VIRTUAL REALITY: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds--And How it Promises and Threatens to Transform Business and Society, By Howard Rheingold (Summit Books: $22.95; 415 pp.)

August 04, 1991|Robert Wright | Wright is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of "Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information" (HarperCollins)

Toward the end of "Virtual Reality," author Howard Rheingold peers into the world of tomorrow and offers the following report: "(T)here is no reason to believe you won't be able to map your genital effectors to your manual sensors and have direct genital contact by shaking hands." Then he asks: "What will happen to social touching when nobody knows where anybody else's erogenous zones are located?"

I must admit that this question had never occurred to me. On the other hand, it didn't come entirely out of the blue. There is something about the infant technology known as virtual reality that sends people's thoughts drifting in the general direction of sex. If you describe the technology to someone who's never heard of it, and then watch his eyes closely for 10 or 15 seconds, you may be able to sense the point at which the carnal implications are silently grasped.

Perhaps, before further elaboration, some technical details are in order.

Virtual reality (VR for short) refers to the increasingly realistic artificial worlds into which people can be electronically immersed. The most common point of entry is the "head-mounted display": A pair of goggles presents your eyes with a computer-generated image of a fake world--or, more precisely, presents each eye with a slightly different slant on this world, imparting the illusion of a third dimension.

But this is more than a 3-D movie, because you can shape it. Turn your head to the right, and the computer adjusts your visual field accordingly. Look down, and you see a virtual floor. Point your finger at the other side of the virtual room, and you "fly" there. Your hand is clothed in a DataGlove that, like the eyeware, continually transmits its location and orientation to the governing computer, or "reality engine." The DataGlove also allows you to grasp an object in this virtual world and move it--and to see your virtual hand in action. It's even possible to "feel" the object, in a rudimentary way, if the DataGlove is equipped with fingertip vibrators. And if you release the object, you can see--and hear--it hit the virtual floor.

Significantly, a virtual world can accommodate more than one person. Your partner could be miles away (comparably outfitted, and connected to your reality engine by fiber optics); but his image--or an image of Mickey Mouse, or Betty Boop, or whatever virtual identity he adopted--could appear before your eyes, within reach of your virtual hand. The two of you could even "touch" each other. If you were wearing DataSuits, you could virtually dance. And so on.

At the moment, the technology is expensive and primitive. Setting up a virtual world takes a few hundred thousand dollars. And that buys only a surrealistically smooth, almost cartoonish environment; none of the "people" look real. But surely virtual worlds, like other microelectronic things, will get better and cheaper, fast. The quantity and quality of available adventures will grow, and the conduits will become more inviting, as lightweight glasses, or opaque contact lenses, replace the oppressive head-mounted display, and dataclothing gets more sleek and sensitive from head to toe. Cyberspace, as they call it, will be accessible from the living room.

So, however futuristic all this sounds, at some point a book that astutely and engagingly explores the promise and perils of VR will come in handy. Which isn't to say that now is that point, or that "Virtual Reality" is that book.

The author seems to have done his research energetically enough, traveling across the United States and to Europe and Japan, palling around with VR luminaries, reading their research papers and sampling their wares. The result is enough raw information to attract anyone (a curious venture capitalist, say) who has a burning desire to survey the "reality-industrial complex." But Rheingold hasn't much streamlined his amorphous databank for dramatic effect, and less determined readers may be stymied by an overwhelming number of underdeveloped characters and ideas.

Most of the book consists of a history of various technological roots of VR and an overview of current academic and commercial hubs of VR research. Only near the end does Rheingold, as promised in the book's subtitle, turn from tour guide to social forecaster. And here he often exhibits a frustrating fascination with the peripheral.

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