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Inside the Headset, Virtual World Meets Reality

The gadgetry is being used to cure phobias, end flashbacks and enhance teaching.


Inside a clunky black suitcase, inventor Bob Ferris carries a full-size Buick LeSabre, several cows and pro golfer Ben Crenshaw.

This feat isn't as difficult as it sounds. The suitcase is one of several new wrinkles in virtual reality. Flip the switch, put on the computerized goggles and suddenly you're aboard the Buick on a surreal voyage.

As the car zooms past someone mowing a lawn, the scent of cut grass wafts toward your nose through tiny tubes in the headset. When a passenger offers you a mint, that odor fills the air.

Unlike most virtual reality contraptions, this one doesn't use animated scenery. It plays video that's shot outdoors with a 360-degree panoramic camera. So if you twist to the right, you see and hear golfer Crenshaw jabbering in the back seat. If you turn to the left, you watch livestock and buildings whiz by.

Buick commissioned the gadgetry to advertise a car, but others are using virtual reality to cure phobias, erase Vietnam flashbacks, meditate, teach chemistry, train soldiers and create books with scenery that readers can climb inside.

After years of hype and millions of dollars in research, virtual reality is slowly making its way into the real world.

In the San Diego office of psychologist Brenda Wiederhold, patients who are afraid of flying can buckle themselves into a real airline seat, don a VR headset and take off on a simulated plane trip. A subwoofer underneath the seat mimics the vibration of a flight.

Nearby, people who dread public speaking work on overcoming their fear by rehearsing in front of a cartoon audience that can be programmed to listen politely or get unruly and throw spit wads.

Other VR programs deal with fears of spiders (complete with a hand-held toy arachnid), heights, social situations and driving.

"Some drivers are afraid of cops, so I have [virtual] cops chase them," says Wiederhold, a former civil servant who is now one of a handful of therapists using virtual reality.

Although these images are all animations, therapists say the technique works. "A good approximation of reality is just as powerful as reality itself," says Larry Hodges, the Georgia Tech computer expert who helped launch virtual phobia treatment.

It's also cheaper. Curing someone's fear of flying is much simpler when it doesn't involve real jets and airfares. Virtual therapy also gets around the traditional method of having the patient visualize whatever situation inspires terror. "Not everyone has a strong enough imagination," Wiederhold notes.

On the other hand, even the best virtual worlds require a certain suspension of disbelief. To increase realism, Wiederhold is collaborating with Phoenix-based Ferris Productions, the virtual Buick people, to add smell-o-vision.

One possibility: piping in the scents of gunpowder and helicopter fuel to a virtual Vietnam that helps veterans defuse post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wiederhold also wanted a napalm scent but says, "We don't know exactly how to re-create that."

Despite its success in psychotherapy, virtual reality hasn't yet lived up to the utopian forecasts of science-fiction writers and engineers. They envisioned something on the order of the holodeck from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which could reproduce fantasy worlds in full sensory detail.

One of the biggest roadblocks to such realism is limited field of vision. Human eyes are able to take in about 180 degrees of the world around them, but few virtual reality devices can duplicate that range.

However, the eyes can be tricked. In 1981, the military developed a flight simulator that could display a 120-degree-wide picture. As researchers began experimenting with it, something startling happened.

The tests started with a narrow field of view and gradually widened it, says Tom Furness, who helped pioneer VR while working for the Air Force and now directs the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab: "Around 60 to 80 degrees, it was like a switch went off in your head. Below that, it was like looking at a picture. After that, it was like someone reached out of the picture and pulled you in."

The military is still deeply involved in virtual reality research. For example, the Naval Research Laboratory recently teamed with Columbia University to create a virtual reality gizmo in which players fire missiles at evil pink rabbits dropped from a UFO.

This apparently ensures that U.S. troops will be ready for any attacks by extraterrestrial bunnies.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, the Air Force helped finance a $4-million virtual reality chamber called "the cave."

It's a 10-by-10-foot room in which the walls, floor and ceiling are giant projection screens that immerse visitors in a computer-generated doppelganger of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

"When you go inside, we project exactly what you would see in Notre Dame," says Adrian Sannier, associate director of Iowa State University's Virtual Reality Application Center.

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