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Get Ready For Virtual Reality

From Reader's Digest
December 1, 1993

By Stanley L. Englebardt

This extraordinary tool may revolutionize the way we live, work and entertain ourselves

Not long ago, I put on a space-age helmet, slid my right hand into a silvery glove and took a trip into a remarkable computer-generated world. The journey took place in a laboratory at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, with Randy Pausch, an associate professor of computer science, as my guide. By punching a few computer keys, Pausch transported me into a colorful, synthetic environment. "Welcome to the world of virtual reality!" he called out.

The virtual world I'd just entered came to me through two tiny television screens built into the helmet's visor. One screen was positioned in front of each eye to give a slightly different view of the scene and thus provide three- dimensional vision. This display was startlingly different from the 3-d I'd seen in movie theaters, however, because I was in it. I could actually touch objects with my gloved hand.

Exploring what looked like a roofless room floating in space, I turned my head to see a wall with shelves. Glancing down, I saw a black-and-white checkerboard floor; tilting my head back provided a view of blue sky and soft clouds. With my gloved hand-which seemed to float in and out of the scene-I picked up a flickering candle in a candleholder and moved it from a table top on one side of the room to a narrow shelf on the other.

Suddenly I spotted a huge shark circling the room, as if sizing me up for its next meal. The logical left side of my brain told me it was only animation, but the imaginative right side wasn't so sure. "Not to worry," Pausch told me with a laugh. "If he attacks, you won't feel anything. We haven't reached that stage-yet."

There's been a lot of hype about virtual reality (VR)- and for good reason. This technological marvel has become amazingly sophisticated.

The core of every VR application is a database used by a high-power computer to build and display graphic images. Unlike other graphics programs, however, the VR computer can sense your head and body movements through cables linked to the helmet and glove, and adjust what you're viewing accordingly. Using a glove, joystick, mouse or other device, you interact with the images presented on the screen. Your mind suspends disbelief, and the computer- generated characters take on real-life qualities.

"The ultimate goal of virtual reality is to give the user the illusion that the computer-created world is real," says Gary Bishop, an associate professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. At UNC, researchers have taken the technology even further by adding a sense of touch to virtual objects-bringing VR much closer to the day when you might be able to feel that shark bite.

At Chapel Hill's computer center, I donned special goggles and grasped the handle of a robotic arm linked to a graphics-oriented computer. Programmed with mathematical equations governing the behavior of atoms, the computer presented me with a 3-D latticework-like picture of a human protein. It looked big enough for me to stroll through. My objective was to put a drug molecule in the one place out of hundreds in the protein where it would "dock" and provide healing powers.

I noted scores of places where the drug molecule might fit. But as I approached most of them, electromagnetic energy caused the robotic handle to jump and twist in my hand. When I neared a friendly site within the protein's interior, I could feel the molecule being pulled firmly into the docking site.

Adding physical feedback to virtual vision brims with practical applications. Here are a few fields where VR has already become an important tool:

Medicine. Terri Plumb of Chester, VT., was born with a rare genetic condition that severely distorted her facial features, producing wide-set eyes, flattened cheekbones and abnormal jaw construction. When Terri approached her teens, she decided to have an operation so she could feel better about herself and not stand out among her friends.

Dr. David Altobelli, a maxillofacial surgeon and biomedical engineer at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, knew he could help, but he didn't know just how surgery on the underlying bone structure would affect the surface of Terri's face. So, working with graphics engineer William Lorenson and physicist Harvey Cline at General Electric's corporate Research and Development Center in Schenectady, N.Y., Altobelli converted scores of CT scans into digital terms and fed the data into a computer. The computer, in turn, produced an almost photographic 3-D reproduction of Terri's head- showing both the outside and the inside.

With a few taps on the keyboard, Altobelli examined his "patient" in ways never possible before. Using an "electronic scalpel," he peeled away the outer skin of Terri's scalp, then went further to find out if the changes would affect her optic nerves, brain tissue, and other vital parts.

Altobelli's computer maps guided craniofactial surgeon John Mulliken at Children's Hospital in Boston during the actual, successful 22-hour operation. Terri Plumb is pleased with the results. Since the, similar VR techniques have been used for 20 other patients with facial distortions.

It won't be long before VR makes its way into other areas of medicine. At the Defense Department's advanced Biomedical Technologies Program in Arlington, Va., surgeons and engineers are using VR to develop the surgical equivalent of a flight simulator. Once the system is operational, medical students and practicing physicians will use a virtual scalpel to make an incision on a virtual gallbladder, without jeopardizing real patients.

The Military. At the Defense Department's Institute for Defense Analysis Simulation Center in Alexandria, Va,. VR technology puts you at the controls of a tank bouncing across the Iraqi desert. The scene is actually a computer generated recreation of the Battle of 7e Easting, a tank engagement during the Persian Gulf War. To make the exercise realistic, military personnel and computer experts took measurements of tread marks, distances and shell holes at the actual battlefield. Soldiers manning the controls inside a mock-up of and Abrams tank participate in a re-enactment of the battle being played out on three large monitors while realistic sounds are piped in through speakers.

Even battle-hardened veterans become so involved with the drill that they come away shaken and sweating. In subsequent field tests, soldiers who have participated in VR tank training consistently outperform those who haven't.

Design. In a Tokyo showroom, shoppers put on U.S.-developed headsets and VR gloves to "see" and "design" a custom-built VR kitchen. Customers can reach out to open cabinet doors and make sure appliances and counter tops are well located. If they're not, the customer makes adjustments and the computer spews out detailed drawings for the actual job.

In an advanced demonstration of virtual reality, Boeing engineers in Seattle have "built" a computer model of a fictitious aircraft. Wearing VR headsets and gloves, they can open a maintenance hatch to inspect mechanical components or peer inside the cockpit and cargo bay to examine the position of controls and the arrangement of seats. Boeing hopes eventually to link VR with computer-aided design workstations. This will enable engineers to test the placement of new parts, making sure they're accessible for repair long before an aircraft is actually built.

Space Exploration. When the Hubble Space Telescope was first put into orbit nearly four years ago, it refused to operate as planned. The only way to remedy various problems that NASA scientists identified was to send somebody to fix them. However, astronauts on previous repair missions discovered that orbiting satellites can be maddeningly more difficult to handle in the zero gravity of space than the mock-ups they practice on in the water-filled simulation tanks on Earth. The Hubble mission, scheduled for this month, is expected to be the most complex repair job ever attempted in space.

To prepare for it, the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor trained at the Johnson Space Center in Houston with a VR system that was programmed with the physics of orbiting objects. Wearing VR headsets and gloves, astronauts took virtual space walks and practiced installing corrective lenses, solar panels and gyroscopes on a virtual Hubble.

Fun and Games. For the entertainment industry, VR is a virtual gold mine. At Virtual World Entertainment's BattleTech Center, in Chicago, scores minutes at the controls of a battle simulator that uses VR technology. Sitting in a cockpit containing 100 controls and two 3-D screens, they explore a distant planet, defend themselves against a giant walking tank and compete in a laser-gun shootout. While this sounds like many video-arcade games, what sets it apart is its three-dimensional realism. As one company representative put it, "You're in the battle-not simply standing outside and looking at it on a screen."

In suburban Seattle, a prehistoric pterodactyl swoops down to attack players of a game called Dactyl Nightmare. Although the players stand in a bare room, the virtual events cause them to dodge, turn and duck-to the amusement of onlookers awaiting their turn. The Vivid Group in Toronto has developed a VR game called FutureSport. In one volleyball match, the opponents were located in different countries-Canada and Italy-with the game data transmitted from computer to computer via satellite.

Where does VR go from here? "The technology is limited only by one's imagination," say UNC's Bishop. The rudimentary images projected by most VR systems today will coon give way to scenes of photographic quality. In Hollywood, the Disney Studios are talking about virtual-reality movies that will have the audience interacting with scenes on the screen. VR headsets, too, will change from cumbersome helmets to wraparound goggles with built-in high-resolution TV screens. VR gloves will be supplemented by full-body suits that sense a participant's every movement. And tactile feedback will become more real.

In many ways, VR provides us with a window into other worlds. The technique is every child's dream, It's alice stepping through the looking glass.

But it's more that that, for virtual reality will have a profound effect on how we live and work, "Make no mistake about it," says Pausch of the University of Virginia. "From interactive games to space exploration, and from high-flying jets to seas-bottom ventures, virtuality is here to stay. Get ready for it!"


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