Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 149 / FEBRUARY 1993 / PAGE 100

Virtual reality. (includes related articles)
by Jeffrey Hsu

For the longest time, people have been searching for new realities--new worlds more interesting, more exciting, and more meaningful than the real world.

In the past, creating unreal worlds meant nothing more than daydreaming, wishful thinking, and simple fantasy. But recent developments in computer technology, graphics, and specialized hardware have served to make fantasies come to life in a form that others can share, in a form that increasingly is indistinguishable from the other reality--the nonvirtual reality of ordinary life.

While the holodeck depicted on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" may be decades away, virtual reality--VR for short--is coming to be used for serious applications. Not just for games and recreation anymore, VR is now being taken seriously as a tool for creating environments that are either too difficult or too impractical to create in real life.

What Is Reality?

VR could be described as a type of advanced computer simulation in which the user doesn't passively view the artificial environment but, rather, interacts with it. The interactive nature of VR makes it possible for the user to become completely immersed in the environment.

Using VR techniques, a developer might create an opportunity to travel back in time and battle dinosaurs. Or an architect might construct a virtual kitchen where you could try out the stove, check the cupboards, and see if it's the kitchen you want in your new house. Or you might try your hand at surgery on a virtual patient. Or dock molecules together and actually feel the push and pull of atomic forces.

Using powerful, integrated computer systems that are capable of displaying three-dimensional graphics and generating stereophonic sound, together with specialized equipment such as head mounts, data gloves, and other I/O devices, VR can give a realistic portrayal of new worlds not yet created. The head mounts submerge you in the virtual, three-dimensional world by presenting your eyes with realistic images that instantly adjust based on what you're looking at, together with realistic sounds to make you feel that you're actually there. Wearing data gloves, you can manipulate items in a virtual environment--open doors, pick up objects, or cut into virtual patients.

Feed Your Head

Mention VR, and many people will think of the movie The Lawnmower Man, which tells of a simpleminded gardener who is sent into VR to play Cyber Boogie and to experience teledildonics (virtual sex) and other unique pleasures. The plot turns on his inadvertent transformation into the malevolent and psychotic alter ego, CyberJobe.

While the experience portrayed in the movie is a far cry from current VR technology, the movie does hit on one truth: The most exciting work being done in VR is entertainment related. Instead of just watching television or guiding a tiny animated figure in a computer game, you can climb inside the experience of fighting opponents as a giant mechanized robot, crashing a car in a demolition derby, exploring in a world of checkerboards and pterodactyls, and much more.

The Specter of Virtuality

One line of VR products that has begun to hit the entertainment scene is Virtuality. With Virtuality, you can enter a simulated or fantasy world and interact with the surroundings--fight opponents with swords or drive a car madly down a racetrack.

Virtuality units, including headgear and related devices to give you a 3-D VR effect, have become more and more common at entertainment centers around the country. Developed by Cyberstudio and marketed by Spectrum HoloByte, Virtuality offers VR game simulations are among the most realistic available.

Hook yourself into the headgear and data glove of the stand-up unit or take a seat in the sit-down driving unit, and off you go to another world. You can fight a space battle in Battle Sphere, go into an elf and wizard fantasy world in Legend Quest, smash up some cars in the virtual demolition derby Total Destruction, or go hang gliding in HERO. Want to fight opponents using a mechanized battle machine? Play EXOREX. Finally, for a truly out-of-this-world experience, fall into Dactyl Nightmare to explore an abstract environment of checkerboards and flying pterodactyls.

Virtuality promises to be a form of entertainment more realistic and exciting than anything previously created. These sophisticated multimedia systems contain a set of closely integrated components, including Amiga-type processors, math coprocessors, graphic chips, CD-ROMs, microphones, motion tracking systems, and much more.

If you find Virtuality's EXOREX particularly exciting, you might want to give Chicago's Battletech Center a try. Located in the North Pier section of town, the Battletech Center is a complete entertainment complex devoted to space warfare. Your $7 buys a 25-minute experience including training, briefing, and 10 minutes of actual playing time. You learn how to operate a giant mechanized robot called a Battlemech, which involves responding to terrain changes, adjusting for heat dissipation, and laying out battle strategy.

The heart of the Battletech center is a room containing 16 podlike cockpits. Encased in a kind of futuristic spacecraft cockpit, you must learn to use over 100 controls while observing the battle on full-color viewing screens. (Despite the large array of controls, knowing how to use 4 main controls will allow you to play satisfactorily.) During ten minutes of intense play, you must make critical decisions while being deluged with information. You have to manage Battlemech movement and firing, decipher sound effects, and choose strategies.

What gives realism and challenge to the Battlemech experience is the fact that you play against living opponents rather than the algorithms of a computer program.

Battletech and Virtuality appear to be only the precursors of a flood of VR options. VR theme rides and parks are being planned by Disney and Universal Studios, and similar attractions may soon appear in Japan.

Molecular Reality

It's not all fun and games in the virtual world. Researchers Frederick Brooks and Henry Fuchs of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are using VR to study how molecules and receptor sites interact. Employing computer-integrated head mounts and a mechanical grip, they set out to simulate the way molecules--and especially drug molecules and receptors--join and dock, and also to examine up close how different molecules would attract or repel each other.

This kind of research is normally accomplished using plastic models, but VR simulations give an entirely new perspective to understanding why certain drugs work or fail based on dynamic, visual models. VR is also being tested as a way to look at various radiation treatment options.

The Deepest Cut

Joseph Rosen, an associate professor of surgery at the Dartmouth Medical School, has developed a "surgery rehearsal" system that gives surgeons a virtual patient to work with, showing graphically what happens when parts of the body are cut into. By using virtual scalpels and other instruments, surgeons can learn how the body reacts to certain procedures before moving on to perform them on a live patient.

Greenleaf Medical Systems, started by Walter Greenleaf, has developed VR systems that allow aphasics (people who cannot talk, often as the result of a stroke) to communicate using hand gestures while wearing a data glove. These gestures are translated into printed text or synthesized speech. The same firm offers a line of products that measure the motion range of a disabled patient, and other products that analyze how a person walks, which is useful to orthopedists.

Castles in the Air

VR's uses go far afield, and uses currently under development demonstrate that it's as protean as the computer that serves as its brain. Air-traffic controllers may one day take direct control of the planes on their radar scope through VR. You may've already read how architects and designers can place clients inside rooms that have yet to be built. But even when a space exists, VR can take you there through robot technology--a particularly useful feature if the location is remote or inaccessible. One day, you might walk through deadly landscapes like the surface of the moon or the bottom of the sea.

Portal to the Future

VR is still a very young field. The level of sophistication of many of the systems is high, but progress must still be made in the quality of the visual images. Once the technology arrives, each of us will be like Columbus or Marco Polo at the portal of a new world of our own making. Neither space nor time is the final frontier. We have yet to set foot on the territory of pure imagination.

Myron Krueger's Artificial Realities

Think of virtual reality, and the vision of a person fully suited up in headgear and data gloves comes to mind. However, many experts in VR circles believe that a person exploring virtual worlds should be free of the heavy burdens of technology. In other words, you should experience VR unencumbered.

Myron Krueger is one of these. One of Life magazine's 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century, he is considered the father of artificial reality. He is an advocate of experiencing artificial worlds without any kind of physical interface device.

In Krueger's artificial reality, art and science become interrelated, and the viewer interacts with and actually becomes part of the new simulated environment. These inter-active environments react to your movements, allowing you to communicate with both graphical images and other users. You use your hands, your head, your feet, or your entire body to interact with these artificial realities. You can play with an animated animal, engage new art form called body surfacing in which every movement produces fantastic colors and shadows), or compose music and draw pictures with your feet. Participants in separate rooms can tickle each other, create a collaborative finger-painting masterpiece, or perform free-fall gymnastics.

Part art form, part tool, Krueger's artificial reality provides a more enjoyable way to interact with virtual reality while introducing a more creative aspect to the artificial environment.

Virtual Reality Studio

Want to experience virtual reality firsthand? Well, now you have your chance. An innovative 3-D graphics system called Virtual Reality Studio (available from Accolade) gives you a taste of what VR is all about.

Virtual Reality Studio differs from other graphics packages in that it allows you to create 3-D environments and then move around within them using your keyboard or mouse as a controller. The objects you create out of geometric solids can be animated and interactive. By putting these together, you can build a dream house, lay out a landscape of geometrical objects, or create your own interactive adventure games. This power does not come without a price, however. Creating your own 3-D environment takes time and practice, and it requires that you take time to learn how the system works. Also, in order to make your environment interactive, you need to use the programming language, which like any language, requires experience before you can apply advanced features easily.

Virtual Reality Studio does require some effort to learn, but it's a very good program for exploring the power and promise of VR.

IBM PC or compatible, CGA or better; supports joystick, mouse, and Ad Lib sound board--$89.95

DOMARC Distributed by Accolade 550 S. Winchester Blvd. Ste. 200 San Jose, CA 95128 (800) 245-7744 (408) 985-1700