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Virtual Reality: Now You Live it, Now You Don't

From Cavalier Daily
April 19, 1994

By Sherie A. Wilhelm

Imagine grabbing an airplane and flying around a room. Your perspective keeps changing as the plane executes a barrel roll. The plane turns upside down, and you watch the floor spin beneath you. Then the plane flies through the ceiling, allowing you to glimpse the sky momentarily before flying back into the room.

Virtual reality makes that scenario possible. Invented in the 1960s by VR pioneering researcher Ivan Sutherland, virtual reality enables people to interact with a computer-generated world in which there is no ceiling to the possibilities.

"In virtual reality, we cover eyes, paint images, and we provided stimuli to one's senses," Assoc. Engineering Prof. Randy Pausch said.

Computer-generated environments are advantageous to researchers when "It costs too much to go there, cannot be produced in the real world, when [it] involves dangerous elements or takes too long to manufacture," said Graduate Engineering student Rich Gossweiler, who works in the University's VR lab.

The digitally produced surroundings make research easier by letting scientists work "Inside the [three-dimensional] model," Gossweiler said.

Users become actual participants instead of spectators. Researchers at the University said they understand the importance of user participation, but virtual reality does not need to mirror the real world, they said. The experience must be realistic enough, however, for the user to forget he is in a computer-generated world. For virtual reality to be truly effective, the user must "stop thinking about technology," Pausch said.

He and other University researchers hope to advance virtual reality technology by creating an environment that allows more natural reaction from the user, Pausch said.

In the psychology department, researchers use virtual reality to test the perception of visual stimuli.

In the real world, people are "surrounded with information," Psychology Prof. Dennis Proffitt said. With virtual reality, "we can isolate components of information" for examination, Proffitt said.

By investigating visual perceptions, software designers learn how to design more realistic environments for more effective research. Although the virtual reality graphics used now are three-dimensional, they are very blocky and cartoonish.

"There's not a lot of detail or sophistication," Pausch said.

The images closely resemble those used in Dire Straits' 1985 video "Money for Nothing." Scientists study cartoons to create a recognizable and familiar environment in which to perform research.

To compensate for the low quality of the images, members of the University's User Interface Group concentrate on providing the most realistic interaction with images possible.

studying art, architecture and computer science.

To make interaction more natural, the group looks for "things that are not like the real world that we need to fix," Pausch said. "Neither a computer mouse nor one hand [in a glove input device] are very effective" for that purpose.

A mouse does not let the operator touch objects with his hands. With the hand glove, direct contact is possible, but the computer recognizes commands by gestures, which are "most unnatural," Asst. University Lab Manager Tommy Burnette said.

The glove "has degrees of freedom, yet it's like a void," Pausch said.

For example, users who try to grab objects within the computer-generated world find the objects are intangible, he said.

Also, turning an object with one hand requires great dexterity and concentration, reminding the user that he is depending on technology rather than living the experience on his own.

The glove detects how the user want the computer to respond, but it does not provide the user with an object that he can hold.

"Instead of a glove, give [the user] a flashlight with a tracking device inside," Pausch said.

The tracking device informs the computer of the user's movements, and the flashlight gives the user "a real, physical thing to hold," he said.

With the flashlight, the user is able to maintain "a grounding and a point of reference, which is how [he] interact[s] in the real world," he added.

University researchers are experimenting with controls for both hands. Using both hands greatly improves the virtual reality experience because people use both hands in the real world.

"You can grab two objects at the same time and place the objects inside one another," Burnette said.

People use one hand to stabilize themselves while they work.

Something as common as a "virtual clipboard" will provide users with an object they can write on or use to orient themselves in the simulated environment.

Another goal of the University faculty and staff is to design more "user-friendly" and accessible software, Pausch said.

The University plans to export some software materials to other researchers and institutions, which would provide more virtual reality researchers with much needed "general building blocks," Pausch said.

Developing software continues to pose challenges. The software does not yet allow objects to behave as the user expects them to, he said.

"We're used to having [something] happen, and it doesn't, and we get really confused," he added.

For instance, if the user picks up a glass, the illusion is powerful enough for him to think he is holding a glass, but he does not feel the glass in his hand. If the glass falls, however, it will not shatter. Researchers do not have the technology to simulate breaking glass and other similar phenomena, Pausch said.

"There is a lack of haptic feedback, or sense of touch," Pausch said. "A hand will pass through a desk. [The software] shows a shadow and a slight sound, but there is no mass to stop the hand. Things are like phantoms."

Researchers at the university also want to create better interfaces to examine data. Such information would enable surgeons to plan observations more effectively, Pausch said.

Like how a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine scans for data, virtual reality machines collect information in a plane and combine data in three-dimensional images, "like a layer cake," Pausch said.

The surgeon then could use a cutaway plane similar to a cross-sectional view to look inside the body. Examining such data would help surgeons plan better procedures for medical treatment.

Augmented reality is another aspect of virtual reality. While virtual reality creates complete surroundings, augmented reality places images or data in the real world.

The superimposed information would allow mechanics "to see how parts pull out" Pausch said.

The user constantly would have access to the information, but "stabilizing an image on the real world is very difficult," he said.

Researchers face another problem with virtual reality: A slight time delay, or "lag", frustrates the user. The technology does not operate as quickly as researchers hope.

"By no means do we want to duplicate reality, but lag is bad. It breaks the spell, the magic," Burnette said.

Although video games exploit virtual reality for profit, researchers can take consolation because the demand for equipment will help drive the technology and reduce prices, making virtual reality errors widely available to researchers, Pausch said.

Within the last five years, virtual reality has emerged from near obscurity to become cutting-edge technology.

"There are many technologies that [virtual reality] will be useful for," said Shuichi Koga, third-year College student and member of the UI group.

The future of virtual reality remains uncertain, but if researchers virtually anything.


Original Article | Local Copy

 

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