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Virtual Reality Technology is on the Cutting Edge of a World of New Experiences

From Daily Progress
March 6, 1994

By David A. Maurer

An odd-looking helmet with cables snaking from its crown resides in Room 238 at the University of Virginia's Olsson Hall. It resembles a welder's hat, but when it's placed on the head - only darkness is perceived through the goggle in its built-in visor.

That quickly changes with a few finger taps on a computer keyboard. Suddenly the mind is thrown into stun-mode as the gloom is transformed into a room.

It's not a flat, one-dimensional room you might see on the television or in a movie theater. This colorful room changes as the eyes and head move, much as what occurs in the real world.

Look up and a blue sky appears through an open roof. Look down and a black and white checkerboard-pattern floor comes into view. Turn the head and look at the shelves or a window.

Squeeze the trigger on a hand-held "fly gun" and move from room to room or float through the window into space. From outside, a look back will show the room that was just left.

Zip back inside the room, and the Energizer bunny might appear at the far end of a corridor - yup - still going.

The extraordinary thing is that the illusions don't end at the end of a screen like in a movie theater. Here, the viewer actually has the feeling of being inside another world.

These visual mirages are called virtual reality, and its full potential might not have been dreamed of yet. But a dedicated team of UVa researchers are working hard to pry the toes of the virtual reality entity off the edge of technology.

Randy Pausch, associate professor in the department of computer science at UVa, heads up the team that consists of students and faculty members. The close-knit group eschews formalities in favor of the free, uninhibited exchange of ideas.

The talk of expanding this new field of virtual reality is too daunting and too difficult to be hindered by formalities, Pausch said.

"Virtual reality is a phenomena with a lot of promise and a lot of technological difficulties that have to be solved," Pausch said as he leaned back in his office chair.

"It's a technology that I think is best looked at as a new medium, in the same way that film and television was a new medium at one time. It took 50 years from when the motion picture projector was patented in 1891 until techniques and technology had improved to the point where a film like 'Citizen Kane' could be made.

"At first they filmed anything just to show the technology. I think that's very much where the stage of virtual reality is today."

Although most people think VR is a very recent development, Pausch said Ivan Sutherland built the first VR system with vector graphics and mechanically linked head tracking in the 1960s as a proof of concept.

But Sutherland's ideas for VR were literally too far ahead of the technology. In order to create that one proof-of-concept system, Pausch said, Sutherland had to assemble all the computing power he could get his hands on.

It would be another 20 years before it would become possible for researchers to start VR developments with off-the-shelf components.

Although the dawn of VR has arrived, the expectations have outraced the reality. Pausch said that movies like Steven King's popular "Lawnmower Man" and Timothy Leary's rantings about "electronic LSD" have fueled a misconception that VR in some way involves drugs or produces a drug-like experience.

That, Pausch said, is "patently false."

"We've had all this hype in the media concerning virtual reality, and unfortunately some of it has come from the scientists themselves," Pausch said. "There have been a lot of expectations raised that won't be sated for a couple of decades.

"Anybody who really experiences a state-of-the-art VR system realizes that there's all this promise and all of these limitations," he said. "Entertainment is easy, because all you have to have is an experience.

"But when you're doing something with the space shuttle or handling hazardous waste containers, all of a sudden you need accuracy and high fidelity and that's much harder."

VictorMaxx Technologies Inc. marketed the first home entertainment VR system in September 1993. David Bisbee, vice president of marketing and investor relationship for the corporation, said Stuntmaster was just the beginning.

"Stuntmaster has done fairly well, although it's very much a first-generation virtual reality system," Bisbee said during a telephone interview from the corporate headquarters in Northbrook, Ill.

"Basically, it was meant to be a kids toy," he said. "But adults picked up on it and were somewhat disappointed when it didn't live up to their expectations.

"But sales proved that there is a large consumer interest in VR systems. This summer we are coming out with CyberMaxx, which will offer the buyer a much higher quality experience."

According to Ross Richardson, manager of corporate communications for Best Products, one of the distributors of Stuntmaster, 1994 will see the first wave of virtual reality systems for home use.

"There have been VR machines in arcades for some time now," Richardson said. "But they cost $50,000 to $100,000. From here on out, this VR thing is going to be marketed in a price range that most consumers can afford.

"We're now holding our breath, because Sega of America has announced they are introducing their home unit this spring. The technology in the field of VR is improving and changing so quickly that we don't know what is going to be on the market in six months - much less several years."

Pausch said that an interesting and important question to ask is what will be the applications of VR, aside from entertainment, in the next 10 years that will generate the money needed to fuel the technology.

"I think the notion that VR is going to be better for everything is very wrong," Pausch said. "I think it's going to succeed in niche markets, in niche applications."

"I think there will certainly be military training applications and medical applications. We are now working with people over in neurosurgery, notably Dr. Neal Kassell, and the director John Goble.

"What they would like to do, and this is not what we can do today, is take the MRI scans and superimpose what they can see on them over the brain as they are operating on it.

"A great deal of neurosurgery is not so much removing a tumor as it's getting there without damaging important parts of the brain. It's a very three-dimensional task, and being able to properly locate the tumor inside the brain is something of vital importance to the surgeons."

But bringing the technology to the point where that sort of thing will be possible is going tot take a lot more fundamental, basic research, Pausch said.

Another question that Pausch and his team are asking, but few others, goes to the very heart of this blossoming technology - what does the mind think of all this?

In one of the UVa-generated VR programs the viewer holds a wand, much like the light saber seen in "Star Wars" films. The wand appears and moves inside the VR world as the participant directs.

A sphere moves about the room and periodically fires colored balls at the viewer. The viewer, if quick enough, can destroy the balls by training the wand on them.

The illusion is so lifelike that viewers often duck and twist involuntarily as the balls zoom in for the "kill." The logical left side of the brain knows the effect is only an illusion, but the imaginative right side isn't sure.

How will the mind react when this primitive technology grows more realistic? Pausch feels that finding answers to this and other perceptual questions are extremely important.

"There's something in the perceptual system that we are tickling that makes this all work," Pausch said. "You have the sense of presence inside a three-dimensional scene.

"This is the kind of thing that a perceptual psychologist is well trained to understand as a phenomenon and to figure out how to measure. One of the things that distinguishes our program, and makes it much more successful than many others, is our close collaboration with Dennis Proffitt, who is a very good perceptual psychologist here at UVa.

"He and his students have been absolutely invaluable to us," he said. "They're the people who can tell us the answers to the really hard technological question like how many times per second do we need to update the scene, or how much spatial resolution is needed."

Promise and excitement is almost palatable in Room 236. Coffee-fueled experimentation and discussion go on nearly around the clock.

Currently, one of the challenges team members are working on is creating a VR program that responds to voice commands. Such innovative work has made UVa's VR research program one of the best in the country, Pausch said.

Also add on the enthusiasm of student researchers like computer science junior Jeff White.

"I wouldn't even want to guess how much time I spend in the lab," White said. "This whole thing is so exciting to be working on that I don't even see it as work.

"I spent last winter break in the lab," he said with a laugh. "I did the work on the maze program, the one where you can move around and grab objects.

"The hardest part of that is collision detection - being able to detect when you hit a wall. Right now, you go right through it. I'm figuring out a way to prevent you from doing that.

"I just love this stuff."


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