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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | MAC SMART / CHARLES PILLER

A Practical Approach to Virtual Reality

July 01, 1996|CHARLES PILLER

Until recently, I considered virtual reality a clever hoax--the notion of spending $20,000 (or paying upward of a dollar per minute to slip into sweaty rental headgear) to experience a neon facsimile of the guts of a video game. Unless I pictured myself collecting the money, real life somehow seemed more alluring.

Then I discovered a practical virtual reality--Apple's QuickTime VR. A year after its introduction, QuickTime VR is finally emerging as a significant Mac and Windows multimedia standard for education, business and marketing.

The idea behind QuickTime VR reminds me of when I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon years ago and snapped a dozen sequential photos to capture the entire breathtaking panorama. Back home, I overlapped the prints to form one continuous image. QuickTime VR starts with this approach, then electronically melds the photos to create a seamless 360-degree "panoramic" in Apple parlance.

Unlike my long, flat Grand Canyon montage, QuickTime VR maps the image to the inside of a virtual cylinder. This allows circumnavigation by panning left or right, as well as panning up or down and zooming in or out. With each move, the image adjusts to your perspective, much like your canyon view changes in real life as you hike.

Unlike video clips--realistic but strictly linear--you explore a QuickTime VR image at will, from any direction, at any speed. Clickable hot spots within a scene can lead from the canyon rim to your descent on Bright Angel trail. Click again to travel, like a rafter, down the Colorado River.

You can also grab objects, such as a wildflower along the trail, and rotate them for closer examination.

Don't underestimate the contrast between this and earlier programs that moved through low-resolution renderings of, say, an architectural model. Exploring photographs (or complex illustrations) this way makes everyday VR practical. For example, architects can walk customers through new homes; students can navigate the chambers of the human heart.

To try QuickTime VR, download the free player from http://qtvr.quicktime.apple.com. Among the many examples linked to the Apple Web site, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum offers a great introduction. And for an amazing look at what can be done with QuickTime VR objects, point your browser to eVox (a QuickTime VR service bureau at http://www.evox.com) and try the Angel. But beware--this file is 3.4 megabytes, a long download via modem.

Fortunately, the best applications are on CD-ROM, making disk space and connect time irrelevant. Two pacesetters, from the fantastic to the sublime, respectively, are "Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual" (Simon & Schuster) and LunaFlora's "Kyoto Gardens," a tranquil tour of the temple gardens of the historic Japanese city.

Perhaps most impressive are QuickTime VR's modest minimum requirements: an old Mac based on a 25-megahertz 68030 processor, with only 5 megabytes of memory (or a roughly equivalent Windows machine). So QuickTime VR is a great deal for end users. But Apple's original draconian pricing and royalty scheme nearly smothered developer acceptance of the technology at the moment of its birth. Fortunately, Apple corrected this self-defeating policy late last year, and more developers are creating VR titles or building tools to generate scenes and objects that easily convert to VR files.

Still, Apple hasn't completed programming tools that will enable a wide range of software and games to embed QuickTime VR images and create intuitive, customized controls to explore those images in context. But it had better get moving. A product with similar features, Omniview's PhotoSphere, should ship soon, and Microsoft's Direct3D software (recently released for Windows 95), should stimulate new VR-type applications on the PC.

QuickTime VR shows that Apple's brain trust hasn't forgotten how to lead the industry with compelling cross-platform technologies. One can only hope that Apple management has enough parental instinct to nurture such offspring before competitors eat them alive.

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Charles Piller, senior editor at Macworld magazine, can be reached via e-mail at cpiller@macworld.com

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