Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 130 / JUNE 1991 / PAGE 30

Virtual reality. (computer simulation)
by Gregg Keizer

Your imagination can move mountains. Your hands can move worlds. This is not science fiction, but reality. Virtual reality, to be exact.

Virtual reality (VR) is a phrase used to describe a swarm of futuristic technologies with even more futuristic applications. Among the dreams of virtual reality are robots to probe crippled fission reactors; simulcast video conferences convened in identical rooms scattered from Zanziber to Arkansas; classrooms that can explore the inner workings of thunderstorms, combustion engines, or the nuclear furnace of the sun; and entertainment for millions as they explore worlds that exist only in the computer.

Loosely based on the idea that computers and other hardware can recreate or enhance reality or, better yet, create artificial realities, even the rough-edged forms of VR test the capabilities of powerful computers.

VR's best-known image is a pair of darkened goggles and a black glove. Both are packed with sensors and trail wires to a high-powered computer or workstation.

Through the goggles you can see a computer graphic representation of a room; turn your head, and the graphics update to make it seem as though your head turns in the alternate reality, too. Motion and position sensors in the glove tell the computer to move you through the room when you point your finger, to grab a computer-generated chair when you close your hand. It's crude but a lot of fun.

Virtual reality would be the supreme computer game, for not only would you be able to truly interact with the game, but if the visionaries have their way, you'd be able to write your own script, too, simply by making choices. Imagine playing an Ultima game in which you swing the sword and you make the decisions about the scope and direction of the game. Left here or straight ahead? Fight or run away? VR would be the ultimate interactive role-playing game.

Virtual reality is, to put it kindly, in its infancy. Even its most fervent proponents believe that years, maybe decades, stand between today's VR and tomorrow's fully realized virtual reality. In the meantime, its advocates hold conferences and seminars to explain what they're doing and argue about where they're going. Cyberthon was one such conference. Sponsored by the Whole Earth Institute, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, Cyberthon held court in San Francisco last October. The major VR names and faces were there, from Jaron Lanier, creator of the Dataglove, to William Gibson, the science-fiction writer whose novel Neuromancer inspired many VR developers and designers.

This is less an account of Cyberthon than a report from the fringes of VR. Put on your goggles, slip on your gloves, and join us for a ride through virtual reality's dreamscape.

The Cyberthon Marathon

Sleep deprivation is the poor man's virtual reality.

Why spend thousands on unproven technology, one-of-a-kind graphics boards, and sensory-stimulation goggles and gloves when you can get the same results--and illusion of alternate realities--by going without sleep for 30 hours or so?

Scheduled as a 24-hour, round-the-clock conference, Cyberthon waxed and waned along with the attention spans of its attendees. Early in the day, crowds pressed through a rat's maze of wooden corridors, black curtains, and small, hot spaces. By late evening, many had seen enough and deserted the warehouse district for a good night's sleep. Two o'clock rolled around, and the desperate stood in line to lie in the La-Z-Boy of the future with goggles masking reality in the Sense8 exhibit. And every hour, on the hour, zombies straggled out to check the lottery boards to see if they'd struck it lucky and won a session with what little hands-on virtual reality hardware was around.

Conversation, always strange at computer conferences and stranger at this one, where practitioners haven't even decided what it is they're doing, became even more bizarre around 5:30 a.m. Question-and-answer sessions trailed off as people forgot what they were driving at, while some people simply nodded off in the front row. "Check out the airplane," said one conferee, talking about an airliner reproduction tucked into a corner. No, not because it was interesting, he said, but because the seats were cushy and you could lean back and nap.

Cyberthon's flavor was pure Woodstock, the celebration of something new and exciting. I haven't seen so many tie-dyed shirts since high school 20 years ago. But the enthusiasm, the idealism, the naivete were infectious.

Similarities to the opening days of personal computers are too strong to dismiss. A ht, new technology that showed great promise, struggling along on the dreams and sweat of young developers and engineers who string garlic around their necks at the first sign of a pinstriped suit. People worried about good and evil applications and hoped for the democratization of the technology--and wondered what that would do to ordinary folk.

I'll be following virtual reality as long as it hangs in there. That fascination is what the Cyberthon marathon left me with, even after I'd caught up on my sleep.

Hardware Makes It All So Unreal

The heart beating in virtual reality is a computer. And those computers are a lot3more powerful than the 286 system you've got in the den or home office.

Sense8 was one of two companies to bring full goggles-and-gloves VR rigs to the Cyberthon site. With its software running on a Sun SPARCstation (a high-end workstation that runs in the $8,000-$10,000 range), Sense8 put its VR viewers at ease by seating them in a Flogiston chair, a recliner that looks as if it escaped from George Jetson's living room.

Traditional VR goggles over the eyes and a modified Mattel Power Glove on one hand completed the gear (the Power Glove is a player controller developed for Nintendo video-games and is a direct descendant of the Data Glove, the glovelike sensing device used in many virtual reality setups). The SPARCstation generated the graphics, then pumped them to the goggles while the Power Glove (and a softball-sized controller for the other hand) guided you through the computer-made artificial environment.

Not only does this VR graphic processing take power--and a lot of it--but the rigs are temperamental. You can't expect reliability from handcrafted graphics boards or snake dens of cables. One VR setup went down for the count when it overheated; another's blank goggles puzzled its operators until they noticed a cable had been kicked loose.

More Cyberthon hardware explored other worlds of virtual reality. A flying mouse let users point and click their way through 3-D animations (raise the mouse off the desk, and it sends the pointer into 3-D mode). Other devices gave tactile feedback on your fingertips (virtual pain?) or a stereoscopic view of remote television cameras through a binocularlike boom contraption. And in one room, you could watch yourself play with a prerecorded band as an Amiga 2000 (packed with three proprietary graphics boards and connected to video and MIDI equipment) overlaid a live shot of you with a taped music video. The Mandala Virtual World System runs a paltry $19,600, a mere pittance in the unreal costs of virtual reality.

Computers make virtual reality possible. But don't expect the technology to drop into your family room or to be the price of a Nintendo any time soon. As Jaron Lanier, creator of the Data Glove and head of VPL (the company many consider the leader in VR), said at Cyberthon, "Everyone wants to take virtual reality home, but even I can't afford it."

The View Through the Goggles

Though there were nearly three dozen exhibits at Cyberthon, the ones that mattered were the three goggles-and-gloves demonstrations by VPL, Sense8, and Autodesk. Because of the limited amount of gear, Cyberthon held hourly lotteries whose winners sampled virtual reality firsthand.

I got behind the Sense8 equipment nearly 18 hours into Cyberthon. For ten minutes I walked through a landscape created by a computer.

Look through the goggles, and you get a glimpse of the Sense8 virtual reality as generated by a Sun SPARCstation. All angles and bright colors, the room you see looks like an office cubicle, complete with shelves and chair. By alternately moving the hand encased in the hot-wired Power Glove and pressing on a small control ball with the other, you "move" around and outside the room. (Actually, you stay flat on your back in a formfitting space-age recliner while the computer changes the sights snt to the goggles.)

It's easy to move about, but not so easy to do anything even mildly coordinated, like grabbing that pesky chair and putting it on the countertop. But you can do some amazing things, like floating above the room for a bird's-eye view or even sinking through the floor to "swim" beneath the room and emerge under a desk.

You find yourself tilting your head back to look up in the computer-constructed playroom, slowly twisting your neck to look around. As sights shift before your eyes, the feeling is both mundane and magical. You get used to it all so quickly. Maybe there's something to VR, you think. Maybe all the mystical talk about the technology and how it will change communication, play, and work isn't so mystical after all. That's when you know you're hooked on VR.

Sharing of the Imagination

"What I'm worried about is that everyone will get bored waiting," said Lanier.

His comments were echoed by several virtual reality practitioners and developers. They're afraid that expectations have already outstripped their ability to deliver workable (much less afordable) virtual reality.

In other words, it's going to be a long time before virtual reality entertains and educates us in the home or helps us in the workplace or the laboratory. Stuart Brand, author of The Media Lab, said, "It'll take ten years to live up to the expectations of today."

If Brand is right and it's the turn of the century before the technology is viable, what will VR be? That depends on whom you talk to.

According to Lanier, the number one application for VR will be in design and prototyping. Autodesk, famous for its PC design program AutoCAD, obviously agrees. Autodesk is hot on the VR development trail. Other uses, said Lanier, will be as complex interfaces for communication and in training applications.

Other VR developers have other ideas. Larry Leifer of Stanford University and Tolfa Corporation envisions VR as a tremendous tool for the physically handicapped, especially as some of the VR technology spins off and is put to use in rehabilitation robotics, intelligent machines to help the handicapped. "Virtual reality is a model of the real world," said Leifer as he showed a video of a robotic arm that fetched paper, ran a printer, and did more--all at a paralyzed computer analyst's spoken commands.

Brenda Laurel of Telepresence sees virtual reality's entertainment possibilities. "It reminds me of the way things started in the computer game business," she said. "Games began with engineers doing cool things. They designed games for themselves."

Virtual reality's entertainment opportunities shouldn't be limited so quickly, and they shouldn't duplicate computer games, Laurel said. Instead, she said that virtual reality's practitioners must ask, "What do we really want this for?"

Maybe all we want is what Lanier wants. "Virtual reality is the media for the sharing of imagination. Not a sharing of the physical world."