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Exploring the New World

From Albermarle
November 30, -0001

By Jamie Miller

U.Va. Computers Tap Virtual Reality

The doctor is frowning, furrowing in concentration as he maneuvers an electric blue laser around the tumor. Past bone and sinew, past nerve and artery, around the side of the organ in question. This is a tricky tumor, considered inoperable only a few years earlier. Just as the physician makes a final turn and begins the micro-delicate work of excising the growth, the laser brushes up against an artery -- the effect is like the rupturing of a water line, the cavity is immediately filled, vision obscured in crimson. The patient is in trouble.

But that's all right. It doesn't matter. This surgery -- no matter how intricate, no matter how precise -- doesn't really count, isn't really real. It's Virtual Reality. The surgeon has been on a practice mission, a computer-simulated training run for the real thing. But don't tell that doctor it wasn't real -- he just learned a lesson that could save someone's life, he just learned how practice makes perfect, and like a teenager hawking a video game with a jar full of quarters, he's not about to quit.

The applications of virtual reality are numerous -- architecture, medicine, economics, entertainment and the military -- but those fields don't necessarily create their own computer know-how. That's usually a job for experts, or as University of Virginia professor Randy Pausch calls them, techno weenies. He can use that term, he's one of them. Pausch is an assistant professor at the university's engineering school, and there is nothing wimpish about his computer research program; there are less than a dozen virtual reality labs in the entire world.

"In computer science, we deal with a completely synthetic abstract world," Pausch says. "We are like engineers in that we build complex systems, but we are unlike engineers in that we are not constrained by the physical; we are constrained only by computational power."

Pausch's job is to create computer environments, or worlds as he calls them, for practical application elsewhere. Once he and his students develop the technology, other fields will use it.

Attempting to explain virtual reality can be very tricky. Pausch says it's like trying to describe color to a blind person. In his paper, "An overview of Virtual Reality," he says "Virtual reality presents a synthetically generated environment to the user through visual, auditory and other stimuli." One of the best examples of the technology lies in the basic computer game, Nintendo, but for the most part, that medium is still two dimensional and experienced via a television monitor. One of the things setting virtual reality apart is its added dimension: virtual reality is 3-D.

Thornton Hall, like many of the university's buildings, seems to go on forever, its cavernous expanses a metaphor of possibility. The building finally links up with the newer Olsson Hall, home of the small, well-contained computer science lab where Randy Pausch and a handful of students are pushing the boundaries of the future -- what they develop today may well be standard household and office technology in a decade or two.

Not so long ago, as the computer age dawned, computers were considered strictly the stuff of science -- the Life magazine photographs of computer centers with electronics stretching floor-to-ceiling and solemn, white-coated scientists clip-boarding their findings. Today things have changed. Technology, for one. Thanks in part to the microchip, what once took up an entire room, can now fit on top of a desk.

Pausch's lab is like that. Desktop PC's line the counters and swivel stools scoot from station to station, their students fixed on the keyboard of the moment. While the work performed there could dwarf the rudimentaries of the past, there are very few stolen scientific faces, for this is a place of excitement and vigor. The tone is set by Pausch's computer-precise wit, and the students seem to thrive in the atmosphere.

That atmosphere is virtual reality.

Wearing the virtual reality headset gives one the vague sense of strapping on a set of moose antlers and a hockey helmet, all the time underwater. And it may look a little bit like that, too, with wires and contraptions sprouting out all around. But inside, new worlds await.

At first, the headset feels top heavy, but the senses soon adjust. A space age-looking techno-glove is placed on one hand. Together, these two components (along with the computers anchoring them) drive the interface between man and computer.

The virtual reality experience is what you make of it. Some say bizarre, some say mundane, but make no mistake, the diagnosis can only be personally administered as no description can do justice, especially Timothy Leary's overblown '60s-chic claim that the medium delivers an LSD punch.

Pausch assists with the virtual reality demonstration. He stands beside and narrates your experiences, acting almost like tour guide, and LSD myths aside, the voice feels comforting, a reassuring link to the world from which you are far, far away.

Inside the headset, intensity reigns.

You are looking at a computer-generated room -- correction, you are preset in that room, moving, walking, turning with a precise sense of depth perception. There are walls, floor and ceiling, a table, a cup, and oddly, the images surround you. This is not like viewing a finite television screen, where looking a couple of feet to the right or left yields off-screen glimpses of the window or couch. With virtual reality, the images surround you: When you turn, you see the other corners of the room; when you look up, you see the ceiling.

You stretch out your glove hand and it appears in from of you, floating in a disassociated state. But you have control, to the right, to the left, it responds to your motor skills. A cup rests on the table; you reach to pick it up -- careful, though, oops, no sea legs yet for this medium, you bump into the table. Well, bump is not the word...your hand dissolves into the table like a ghost disappearing through a wall. It appears moments later sticking through the table top -- that's the way the program for this particular software is written. Gravity applies the same way. There isn't any. Releasing the cup in mid-air just leaves it floating as if it were Tang in the space shuttle.

When Pausch wants gravity, he gets gravity. He just writes it into the script. In fact, Randy Pausch can control a lot of things -- sometimes even your emotions. "If you put your hand into a wall in virtual reality, you won't feel anything," he says. "We can give you cues, we can give you a sound, we can show you a visual-stars coming out of the object like when a ball drops on a cartoon character. There are a lot of tricks we can play. But we can't make you feel it," the professor pauses, grinning, "but we can make you think you felt it."

The first demonstration is over and the headset is off. Pausch discusses the glove he uses in the project. "This is a Mattel Power Glove from a Nintendo system, which we butchered pretty severely," he says. "I tell you, the proudest day of my life was when I actually got my National Science Foundation grant to reimburse me for the purchase of toys at Toys R Us! I figured I've got to be doing something right if they believe me on this one!" The room erupts in laughter, and that is one of the important elements of Pausch's program. Brilliance aside, long hours and intense study and mathematical calculations aside, it is the human touch that turns these computer wheels, and Pausch sees better than anyone the ironies of high-level research being powered by a trip to the mall and a toy store purchase. He is able to keep perspective and laugh at the foibles and mistakes, but nobody is laughing at his achievements.

His good-natured relationship with the students engenders much greater interest and dedication than any stern frown. As a result, there is a fellowship of idea exchange and exploration that is rare in so many academic settings. "we have an incredibly exciting, excited bunch of students here with a real appreciation of being on the cutting edge," Pausch says. "There are only a handful of programs that can do this.

"Sometimes I'll stop in at eleven o'clock on a Saturday night and there'll be four or five people here -- and it's not like they couldn't get dates!"

Back in the headset, you enter another virtual reality world, this one a program named Alice, and this one with some twists. This time the setting is larger, less confined, there seems to be a wall leading to an open passageway. The floor is checkered, for depth perception, Pausch says. He tells you to continue to look around. You turn, nothing. You continue to turn, nothing, then a motion, something red. You pivot to face a bouncing ball as it bounds along in a gravity-free state, never slowing, never loosing momentum, dancing around the room. You need to work to keep it in sight. Then another sight, something odd, pink. You squint and it comes closer...a drum, some ears. Sneakers? It's the Energizer Bunny.

Pausch and his students realize that they could create almost anything and give it almost any properties, so, since a tremendous amount of hard work is going into it, why not have some fun.

Pausch explains the details. "These are three-dimensional, mathematical models you see. All the geometry is done by people from the architectural school using an IBM PC and a standard desktop package. The key is to not only have the right software, but have the right people. Having the architecture students is much better -- these people are trained and selected for their ability to work with form and shape. Once we have the description of the geometry, we can flex it, and that's what Alice is good at."

You listen to this while still plugged into virtual reality. It becomes virtual surreality. You look around the corner and follow the bunny for a while, the ball bouncing in and out of view, then you see something in the periphery, something green. You turn to get a better look. It is very close, a little scary, moving closer, very tall, very green. You look up to identify -- it's Gumby!

Then the lights go out. You hear Pausch and his men theorizing, working to restore vision. They ask if this fixes the problem, well how about that? Does this do it? Nothing. You are left in the darkness with a 10-foot Gumby, a perpetually bouncing ball and the Energizer Bunny. You have felt more comfortable. Computer keyboards rattle from all corners of the room as the team checks out the flaw in the system. In the background, someone says, "The Ranger's not going to like this, Yogi." Laughter. The problem continues, it appears to be something major. Then, just as you're ready to ask Scotty to beam you up, light! All vision is restored. Now you hear celebration -- clapping and laughing, the thumping of hands on backs. Randy Pausch's voice cuts through the chatter in a very serious scientific tone. He will now explain the technical flaw. "What happened here is basically one of our many variations on 'It works better when you plug it in.'" More laughter.

Randy Pausch wasn't always interested in computers. To talk to him and see his work, his acumen, one would think he had played Nintendo in the womb and cracked DOS before he could walk. But no, he simply happens to be an extraordinary person who chose computer science as his field. "I didn't touch a computer until I got to college," he says. "I was fortunate enough to be pristine when the computer program at Brown got its hand on my brain."

From there he went on to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon. I've always been interested in the interface between people and technology. And one of the joys of being a university professor is you can say, 'Gee, this looks interesting, I want to go into it.'"

His interest in the virtual reality field is consuming and his knowledge is cutting-edge. He sees great things for the medium as it progresses. "In 20 years, the current technology limitations will be gone and I can predict [virtual reality] will be packaged like sunglasses."

Even today, one need not look far to see the applications of virtual reality. Take for instance, tanks. The virtual reality version of tank tracking is call SIMNET.

"In some of the battles [in Desert Storm] where we fought the Republican Guard we didn't have a lot of air cover, and we still obliterated them," Pausch says. "It was not even close. What happened was, their tank drivers did a really bad job, and our tank drivers did a really good job. And one reason for that is our tank drivers were better trained.

"We use the virtual reality-type simulations where you're in a physical mock-up of a tank. You get a very visceral view of being in a tank. They put a huge woofer [speaker] under you (you're lying on your back -- you can take more stress that way), so when you take a hit they rumble the woofer for those vibrations. They get people to panic and that's what they're looking for."

The SIMNET program also applies for training of helicopter and fighter pilots, and virtual reality has even extended to NASA's space shuttle program.

Architects and interior designers are using virtual reality as well. Put the blueprints down and imagine being able to walk through the house you are building, turning the corners, viewing the light and sense of space -- all before you even break ground. It's happening.

And medicine; laparoscopic surgery may soon be incorporating the technology, with CAT-scans not far behind. Pausch is also working with U.Va.'s Dr. Neal Kassel to create a neuro-surgical application.

But one doesn't need to focus on the complexities of warfare and medicine to see virtual reality's impact on today's world -- walk into any mall and take a look at the video arcade.

While still mostly two dimensional, the modern video game is the heart and soul -- or at least the economic pulse -- of virtual reality. People sometimes consider that trite, though -- kid's games, quarter-a-shot entertainment. Just entertainment.

Pausch sees the other side. "People say, 'Well, when will virtual reality get into a real application?' Well I don't know how you measure reality, but I think size-of-market correlates pretty well in number of dollars...now that's a crass metric, but consider how many people in this country own a Nintendo game. The Nintendo market is huge. Most people don't realize that if you charted it as a fraction of the U.S. trade imbalance with Japan, it's a significant chunk. It's measurable."

Entering the virtual reality computer lab at U.Va., one of the first things people notice is a large, framed photograph of Walt Disney. The picture is propped up next to a computer screen. Ten feet away, at another computer, is a similarly framed picture of Ivan Sutherland.

"In computer science, we deal with completely synthetic, abstract worlds," Pausch says, explaining that he and his students name the computers to make them more real. "It's a little bit like naming children; people want to get it right. They think very carefully about all the possible implications.

"Ivan Sutherland is the father of modern computer graphics. He actually did the first virtual reality in the 1950s -- he's an absolute visionary."

And Walt Disney? "We believe virtual reality is a new medium, just like film was a new medium. [Disney] was willing to bet the farm on a new, technologically based medium -- in his case, it was the notion that you could make a full-length animated cartoon, which nobody had done before.

"Well, we fell the same way. We're throwing everything we have at virtual reality and saying we think this is going to pan out. We have no doubt about it."

Virtual reality is still young. The hours are long and the process is slow, at times discouraging. But Randy Pausch's team only need look as far as the picture frame for encouragement. They are pioneering in the grand American tradition, following in the footsteps of their idols and mentors; they are pushing the boundaries and carving out the future, and all the while looking for something new, something different -- something real.

Original Article | Local Copy


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