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Virtual Reality for Five Dollars a Day

From Virginia Engineering
April 1, 1992

Randy Pausch, assistant professor of computer science, says he hates articles and videotapes that try to describe virtual reality. "It has to be experienced first-hand. Simply talking about it is like describing color to a blind man."

Visitors to Pausch's lab experience virtual reality by donning goggles equipped with two video screens -- one completely covering each eye. A sensor on the goggles determines where you are, which way you are looking, and even the angle at which you've cocked your head. A computer then generates graphic images of any objects the programmer wishes to create; the images change to account for your motions. The result is that you perceive yourself to be surrounded by computer-generated objects. With a sensor-equipped glove, you can "grab" objects and move them around.

Virtual reality can duplicate events or processes which are too expensive or too dangerous to experience in the real world-such as letting pilots-in-training crash. Pausch, however, is exploring virtual reality as a new human-computer interface.

Humans communicate with each other through voice inflection, timing, and gesture. "Those capabilities are hard-wired into humans," Pausch explains. "You wouldn't put up with a person who makes you learn how to type commands to him; why should you have to talk to computers that way? Ultimately, we'd like to be able to read facial expressions."

But in the meanwhile, Pausch suggests, we have a lot to learn about the medium itself. "The first movies were made by Thomas Edison and other engineers -- and those movies were really bad. In the same way, the field of virtual reality research is in its infancy. This is the first truly three-dimensional electronic medium, and we have absolutely no idea how to use it."

For starters, Pausch imagines a catalog-like retail operation in which home shoppers could take a virtual stroll through aisles of merchandise from all over the world. A customer might chat with a computer-generated companion who could volunteer information about objects the visitor lingers over. Or, if a virtual reality system were connected with a global communications network, callers might be able to see and interact with a three-dimensional image of the party on the other end of the line. Radiologists on opposite coasts could engage in a shared virtual reality where they walk around in a room-sized presentation of magnetic resonance imaging data and point in 3-D at the location of a tumor.

The five-dollar-a-day system -- a far cry from the futuristic holodeck of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- generates flat and cartoon-like graphics, with a slight time lag due to a sluggish location sensor. Pausch and his student researchers are also exploring the greater capabilities of a more complex system-including suspending visitors over a computer-generated pit or unleashing mammoth virtual spiders on them. Because computers grow more powerful and less expensive each year, even these more complex systems will be widely available before too long, according to Pausch.

Pausch and his students are currently developing a system in which computer science students team up with students from artistically creative disciplines, such as drama and architecture. The key to success lies in having tools that allow the programmer to build virtual objects quickly, and to specify how they behave in the virtual universe.

If a wide range of students had access to a large number of inexpensive virtual reality systems, the results, according to Pausch, would be tremendous. "Some of the brightest people in the whole country are graduate and undergraduate students right here at U.Va."

Original Article | Local Copy


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