.. ting, manipulating, and representing the various components mentioned before. Computer application programs written to allow the presentation of graphic, audio, and perceptual information allow the “user” to enter the virtual world. The computer and it’s programs must then handle the input from the user in order to realistically simulate their interaction with that artificial reality. The computer hardware and software capable of implementing virtual reality range from home computer systems costing around $5,000 to the high-end Silicon Graphics, Inc. workstations costing over $100,000 (Newquist 1992, 95).
Although the price of the computer hardware and software has been one of the major factors prohibiting wide spread availability of virtual reality technology, recent breakthroughs are beginning to promise dramatically lower prices in the near future. THE HISTORY OF VIRTUAL REALITY Virtual Reality in the Past Who first started developing virtual realities, and why? The answer to that question takes us outside of computer technology. Computer technologists were not the first people to think of providing realistic artificial experiences. In the mid-1950s, the movie industry went through a period of experimentation that introduced Cinerama and Cinemascope. In 1956, Morton Heilig invented an arcade-style attraction called Sensorama, which still exists today (in Heilig’s backyard, under an old ragged tarp.) You sit on a seat, grasp motorcycle handlebars, and hold your head up to two stereo-mounted lenses.
The seat and handlebars vibrate as you look at a three-dimensional movie taken at eye level in Manhattan traffic. Wind blows in your face at a velocity corresponding to your movement in the scene. As you travel, the smell of exhaust fumes and the aroma of pizza are present at appropriate moments. The idea behind Sensorama was to make the ultimate film experience, but because it was never intended for interaction, it is not true virtual reality as we define it today. However, because Heilig’s idea was to immerse the viewer in a completely synthetic experience it is widely accepted that this was the first commercial attempt to use virtual reality (Welter 1990, 66).
If this had been a success, today we would probably have had arcade games that surpassed anything imaginable. In the field of computers, the first research was started in 1966 by Tom Furness at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (Horn 1991, 57). He was experimenting with an alternative for displaying information to a pilot during combat situations. Furness continued development of the heads-up type of display that allowed pilots to see graphic instruments on the inside of their helmet visors. “Traditional” cockpit displays are mounted below eye level, so the pilot must constantly glance down at the instrumentation. During combat this is unacceptable. It occurred to Furness that he could display computer graphic representations of information outside the cockpit using the same type of technology. In effect the first work on high-tech flight simulators was begun.
Furness depicted the three-dimensional graphic space through which the pilot was flying. This display rendered graphic objects of enemy missiles and enemy airspace. Pilots could look around in this space by turning their heads. They found this system effective because the visualization of the three-dimensional combat environment, previously gained only through long experience, was now portrayed in a concrete way that they could grasp very quickly (Krueger 1991, 120). Much of this work was classified until 1983, and even then it was unknown to the world for the most part.
This technology was limited to the cockpit environment and was far too expensive for general application. In 1969, at the University of Utah, Ivan Sutherland, the father of computer graphics, implemented a head-mounted display that generated two stereoscopic images of a three- dimensional scene (Fisher, Tazelaar 1990, 219). These images were displayed on two tiny monitors, one for each eye. These monitors were mounted on an apparatus suspended from the ceiling and strapped to the viewer’s head. As the viewer turned his head, he could look around a three-dimensional graphic room. The movements of his head were detected by the apparatus and were relayed to a computer, which generated an appropriate view–the view that the person would see if he were in the room, looking in that direction.
Virtual Reality in the Present At the present time, mentioning VR will bring the movie Lawnmower Man to mind. While the experiences portrayed in this movie are a far cry from current VR technology, the movie does make a very good point: The most exciting work being done in VR is entertainment related. Instead of simply watching television or guiding a tiny animated figure through a computer game, you can become part of the action–fighting opponents as a giant mechanized robot, crashing a car in demolition derby, exploring in a world of checkerboards and pterodactyls, and much more. A new VR entertainment product is just appearing on the market. Developed by Cyberstudio and marketed by Spectrum Holobtye, Virtuality offers VR game simulations that are among the most realistic. These units include headgear and related devices to give you a 3-D VR effect.
Battle Sphere, Legend Quest, Total Destruction, HERO, Dactyl Nightmare and EXOREX are among the currently available “simulations.” They are becoming more and more common at entertainment centers around the country. This is just one new technology that is incorporating VR. Although, Virtuality has a more “arcade” type of appeal, there are other entertainment related applications of VR that are currently available or, at least, that are on the drawing board. Chicago’s Battletech Center is more along the lines of a theme park and is a complete entertainment complex devoted to space warfare (Rheingold 1991, 373). For $7 you can have an experience of a lifetime.
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. 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. Battlemech and Virtuality appear to be only 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. Again, remember that VR is still a very young field. The level of sophistication of the systems involved is high, but progress is still being made in the quality of the visual images– higher resolution, more colors, faster display rates.
As soon as the technology arrives, each of us will be like explorers. As Jaron Lanier once said, “Sometimes I think we’ve uncovered a new planet, but one that we are inventing instead of discovering. ..virtual reality is an adventure worth centuries” (Menzel 1990, 116). Virtual Reality in the Future “Responsive technology will move ever closer to us, becoming the standard interface through which we gain most of our experience” (Krueger 1983, 187). People from different countries could convene for a conference without actually physically going any place. Shut-ins, the handicapped, and the elderly could do things that most people take for granted–taking a stroll through the park or a shopping trip at the mall.
Our everyday experiences could include exploring the far side of the moon, learning what life as a dinosaur could have been like, or basking in the sun on the “shores” of mars. Virtual reality offers a higher dimension of exploration to both leisure and learning experiences. THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL REALITY Consider the following statement: “It is likely that artificial reality will be the key metaphor of the immediate future-not just in computer technology, but in intellectual discourse as well” (Krueger 1992, 262). Often, when a new trend is introduced into the social order, society integrates it over time at a relatively slow pace. The automobile, telephone, and television, are all examples of new technologies that came into being, but were slow to be accepted. The same can not be said of the newer technologies of integrated circuits and it’s offspring the computer.
With the discovery of integrated circuits and the vast number of uses for them, society had little choice but to integrate them as quickly as possible. The benefits were simply too large to ignore, the needs of our new ways of life too great. New Rules of Behavior The problem with these new computer based areas of high-technology is that the technology itself is evolving so rapidly that society is not afforded as much time to assimilate as before. Instead new forms of technology are thrust into the everyday lives of people and it becomes almost an afterthought that they must interact with it. Society must therefore learn to adapt faster than ever to an increasingly complex and technologically oriented way of life.
New forms of education must be devised that will address the problems of specialization as well as the ever expanding knowledge base. Luckily, the very technology that mandates these changes may also be the means to achieve those lofty goals. Currently, computer based training programs and computerized learning systems are making new inroads into the problems of knowledge acquisition and skill reorientation. Once the methods for further integrating the human senses with the computer’s processing capabilities have been developed, these benefits will become the basis for most educational systems. It seems obvious that an improved access path to the human consciousness through the use of computerized mechanisms will surely enable advances in all manners of communication, education, and perception, than ever before. Adverse Effects Accompanying any new method of social interaction, of course, are possible abuses or adverse effects. The advent of the television was heralded by many as the downfall of Man’s pursuit of knowledge and his capacity to communicate with others using traditional media.
Since it’s introduction, however, television has made many things possible that have enriched and enhanced the educational and communication fields. But, this technology was not without it’s problems. Many surveys have shown that if improperly regulated, children can become addicted to television and have suffered adverse effects. Based on the fact that VR involves a greater degree of “user” immersion, VR’s adverse effects could be equally greater. Consider that overexposure to television has been blamed for causing intellectual degeneration and to some extent even physical problems such as visual impairment.
Overexposure to VR could result in similar effects, but to a greater degree. Carried to the extreme, addiction to VR could lead to the inability to distinguish VR from reality. Therefore, safeguards and methods of averting potential ill effects such as these from becoming widespread must be developed. CONCLUSION After examining the components of virtual reality and it’s nature, and looking back at where it began, where it is now, and where it appears to be heading, it must be re-emphasized that this is still a relatively young technology. Only after we begin to refine the techniques and experience the possibilities, will we be able to tell what VR means to mankind. But, we are beginning to see glimpses of what can be done with this technology as well as what it may provide to our society. Whether good or bad, this technology is the next step in our societies quest for ever-higher forms of science and methods of expression.
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