Worlds of David Darling > Children's
Encyclopedia of Science > Computers of the Future > 5. Virtually Real
COMPUTERS OF THE FUTURE:
Intelligent Machines and Virtual Reality
a book in the Beyond 2000 series by David Darling
5. Virtually Real
When Star Trek's
Captain Picard and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise
want to relax, they head for a special area of the ship called the holodeck.
There a computer creates an imaginary adventure or location with which crew
members can interact. Today, such an experience may seem far-fetched. But
building a holodeck, or something like it, may eventually become possible
if developments continue in the amazing field of VIRTUAL REALITY (VR).
The Great Illusion
If you have played an action-adventure game or used a flight simulator on
a personal computer or games console, you know that a computer can produce
scenes and sounds that almost seem to be real. Your heart beats faster as
you take part in an imaginary car chase or as you pilot a high-speed jet
through narrow, winding canyons.
|Virtual reality adds even more excitement
to arcade games, surrounding the player with computer-generated motion,
pictures, and sounds
Now suppose you view the action not on an ordinary computer screen but through
a special headset in which a pair of tiny television tubes and a system
of lenses project computer-generated pictures directly onto each of your
eyes. Images from the outside world are completely blocked out. You are
in a new world, one generated from inside a computer. You hear only the
sounds that reach you through headphones covering your ears. All the sights
and sounds that bombard you come not from the real world but from the computer-manufactured
world of virtual reality.
In VR you feel as if you are more than just a spectator; you feel that you
are part of the action. A device inside the headset tracks the position
of your head so that you are able to peek behind objects in the computer's
world and see what is there. You can look at the floor or the ceiling. You
can zoom upward and look down on the scene from above. In short, you can
do almost anything that can be done in the real world.
A Helping Hand
The illusion of reality can be made even stronger by a device called a dataglove
– a special glove equipped with sensors that detect the position of
your hand and each of your fingers. The headset allows you to see your virtual
hand floating in the space before you. When you move your real hand or wiggle
your fingers, the hand in virtual reality moves, too, in exactly the same
way. By this means you can reach into the world of virtual reality, grasp
virtual object, and move it around just as if it were real. You can also
glide in any direction by simply pointing a finger. You can thus explore
different parts of the computer's created world.
|An astronaut trains with a virtual reality
headset and a dataglove for a mission to repair the orbiting Hubble
Researchers are also developing datasuits – bodysuits that will sense movement
by any part of the body – so that you will be able to walk, jump,
swim, or move in other ways in virtual reality. Improvements are being made,
too, in the quality of the images presented through the headset. These images
are still quite grainy and cartoonlike. Also, there is a slight but noticeable
delay between the wearer's movements and the computer’s response in changing
the VR scene. This delay is due to the huge number of calculations that
have to be performed to keep track of complex objects and movements in virtual
space. As faster processors become available, the difference between the
quality of sights and sounds in VR and those in the real world will shrink.
Putting VR to Work
All sorts of extraordinary applications of VR are being developed. For instance,
medical students will be able to practice doing operations in virtual reality
before ever carrying out procedures on living patients. As well, experienced
surgeons will be able to perfect new techniques. Other VR systems will allow
architects and their clients to "tour" the rooms and corridors of buildings
that are still in the design stage.
Virtual reality promises to give scientists a clearer understanding of how
the tiny particles that make up all matter – atoms and molecules –
are arranged in different substances. Scientists can already manipulate
three-dimensional models of molecules so that they can be examined from
different perspectives. As the techniques of VR improve, researchers will
have a powerful new tool with which to design and develop new chemicals,
such as drugs to fight cancer and other diseases.
VR may also be used I the future to give human operators precise, though
remote, control over objects, unmanned vehicles, and other devices. A certain
robot's job, for instance, might be to locate survivors trapped beneath
rubble after an earthquake. Television cameras and instruments sensitive
to body heat would send pictures and data to the VR headset of a human operator
working at a safe distance. Using a dataglove, or possibly a datasuit, the
operator would guide the robot toward any place where survivors might be
trapped. Using similar equipment, machinery could be remotely operated in
other dangerous places, such as in deep ocean trenches or in the core of
a damaged nuclear reactor.
A less thrilling but more common use of VR will be shopping. Future shoppers,
wanting to avoid crowds and save time, will don their VR gear at home and
wander through a virtual mall, pointing with a datagloved hand at whichever
stores they wish to enter. Once inside a store, items will be purchased
by picking them up with dataglove and dropping them into a virtual shopping
cat. The computer will figure out the total bill, automatically deduct this
amount from the person's bank account, and send instructions to a real supply
depot to have the goods delivered to the shopper's home.
|Planes that are Safe to Crash
|Thanks to sophisticated flight simulators,
pilots can practice landing an airliner at any major airport
in the world without ever leaving the ground
Virtual reality is an outgrowth of flight simulators that have been
helping to train military and civilian pilots for over 30 years. A
flight simulator consists of a mock-up, or full-size model, of an
airplane cockpit, complete with working instruments and controls as
well as realistic views through cockpit windows. The cockpit is supported
on hydraulic jacks that move this way and that to give an accurate
impression of how the aircraft would react if it were in real flight.
The trainee pilot "takes off" and "flies" the simulator as if it were
an actual plane while the powerful computers connected to the system
change the views through the windows and move the cockpit accordingly.
The instructor in charge of the simulation can at any time introduce
a flight emergency – the failure of an engine, for instance,
combined with a strong crosswind blowing on landing. Such occurrences
test the trainee's ability to cope in unusual or difficult situations.
A space shuttle simulator is used by astronauts as they prepare for
missions orbiting Earth. And in the future, astronauts may practice
with even more sophisticated simulators. A virtual reality system
could be used to prepare prospective space travelers for what it would
be like to walk on Mars or on one of Jupiter's moons. To make the
experience authentic, the system would use images sent back by robot
The VR Classroom
Because of virtual reality, school lessons in the twenty-first century may
prove to be gripping experiences. With each student wearing an electronic
headset and a datasuit, a whole class could be transported into the thick
of an American Civil War battle or could enjoy a swim through a colossal
human heart. Even your least-liked subject could come to life in a way that
at present you can hardly imagine.
Some people, however, are concerned about the effects that VR might have
on us. They fear that if we immerse ourselves in fantastic adventures of
experiences for long periods, we may lose touch with the real world. When
we come out of VR sessions, we may find it hard to readjust to our everyday
lives. And if we become obsessed by playing the part of imaginary, and perhaps
violent, characters in the computer's inner world, this may affect how we
behave at other times.