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Hip, Hype, and Hope: The Faces of Virtual Reality

From Virginia Center for Media & Culture Newsletter
August 1, 1994

In a New York Times article in 1957 Br. Lee De Forest, the inventor of the Audion tube used to transmit and receive radio signals, stated, "Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances." Twenty years later, the President of Digital Equipment Company said "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." Perhaps it is a paradox of modernity that the more knowledge we accumulate, the more difficulty we have envisioning future changes in our relationship with the world. And yet, our relationship with the world changes at dizzying pace. "Anything paper more than four years old is probably being read only for historical perspective," says Dr. Randy Pausch. Pausch, who received his doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, started the University of Virginia's Users Interface Group, a virtual reality research facility, about five years ago. It is the only virtual reality facility of any size in the state of Virginia.

The term "virtual reality" hit the newsstands with fun and fury in the early 1990s, a time when Sega, an electronic games manufacturer in Silicon Valley, succeeded in assembling, packaging, and marketing its promises through their line of children's games; when Ted Nelson's ideas of "hypertext" and "hypermedia" were beginning to perk ears, and when the media, catering to a public anxious about AIDS, began to hyperventilate on Nelson's other term, "technodildonics." As described in the media, virtual reality becomes a bundle of loose promises, more often than not playing upon our fantasies and insinuating themselves onto human wishes and desires -- safe sex, harmless adventure, effortless endeavors. The media, although not the media alone, Pausch believes, has acted irresponsibly by foregrounding extravagant and frivolous claims about virtual reality. "For the last few years, serious researchers resisted the term 'virtual reality,' but we've mostly just given up. The media, vendors, and everyone else now uses virtual reality to mean pretty much anything. I've seen so many sloppy pieces of work reporting on virtual reality that I now insist on the right to review articles for technical accuracy before publication. I don't mind the wild speculation; that is part of the press's job, and frankly, some of the wildest claims have come from virtual reality researchers, which is a shame."

Our understanding of what virtual reality will make possible, and when, would be more accurate, says Pausch, if we drew analogies between the research currently being done on virtual reality, and the trajectory of earlier technological developments. "The closest example might be the development of motion pictures. In 1891, Edison's engineers got the patent on motion pictures, but roughly 50 years later, we got Citizen Kane. There are modes of expression in any new medium. In film, for example, we have flashbacks and crosscuts that did not occur in theater. We don't yet know what the modes of expression will be for virtual reality."

It is easier to label virtual reality than to define it, and more difficult to describe "virtual reality" than to describe man's first moon walk. It is a term that turns in on itself and, if pondered for any length of time, can seem the intellectual equivalent of patting your head while rubbing your stomach. Benjamin Woolley, in his historical overview of virtual reality, Virtual Worlds, explains virtual reality as "the technology used to provide a more intimate 'interface' between humans and computer imagery. It is about simulating the full ensemble of sense data that make up real experience. Ideally, the user wears a device that substitutes the sense data coming from the natural world with that produced by a computer."

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