COMPUTERS OF THE FUTURE: Intelligent Machines and Virtual Reality - 5. Virtually Real

virtual reality game

Figure 1. Virtual reality adds even more excitement to arcade games, surrounding the player with computer-generated motion, pictures, and sounds.

virtual reality headset and dataglove

Figure 2. An astronaut trains with a virtual reality headset and a dataglove for a mission to repair the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

flight simulator

Figure 3. Thanks to sophisticated flight simulators, pilots can practice landing an airliner at any major airport in the world without ever leaving the ground.

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 (see Figure 1). 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.


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 (see Figure 2).

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
Virtual reality is an outgrowth of flight simulators that have been helping to train military and civilian pilots for over 30 years (see Figure 3). 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 simulators.


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.