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Computer-made 'Virtual Reality' Opening Unlimited Possibilities

From Daily Progress
March 17, 1991

By Lane Thomasson


In a basement laboratory at the University of Virginia, computer-generated airplanes soar overhead, windmills spin on command, and the floor moves in a three-dimensional, man-made world.

Observers call it magic. Writers say it's Alice's wonderland. Engineers refer to it as science. The popular term for the imaginary world that looks, sounds and feels real is "virtual reality."

"What we're doing is making computers adapt to people instead of people adapting to computers," said UVa computer science professor Randy Pausch. "We're creating a three-dimensional world you can enter, and in which you can change your point of view and move without having to think about it."

Pausch and electrical engineer Ronald D. Williams have built a virtual reality system in a joint project between their two departments.

"In virtual reality you can do things that you can't do in the real word," Pausch said.

"You can even play racquetball with someone hundreds of miles away, because, unlike television or the movies, virtual reality can be interactive," Williams said. "You just strap on the same computer-simulated court...and you can see a computer-generated image of your opponent."

Virtual Reality has three major components:

Graduate students Pramod Dwivedi and Larry Ferber said it took them a month to plot x, y and z coordinates which became the three-dimensional virtual reality.

"I put in an artificial floor, so you'd get the sense of where you were in the artificial world. But you can turn the virtual reality upside down and play with it however you like," Dwivedi said.

Pausch said, "It's really one of the most powerful discoveries we have. It makes it possible for everyone to suspend their disbelief and enter other worlds."

Developed in the mid-1970s, by a former University of Connecticut computer science professor, the concept of virtual reality has spread widely throughout American research labs and high-tech computer firms.

Although systems to set up the illusion cost an average of $250,000, Pausch, Williams and their graduate students began working on a $5,000 model in the summer of 1990. The cheaper model, they say, will allow other researchers to tap in the unknown field, thereby increasing technological developments.

"What we're doing really isn't new," Pausch said. "Video games like Nintendo work this way. We're just tracking the movements of the user's head instead of his hand on a joy stick."

Because virtual reality worlds are man-made, the possibilities of their uses are unlimited, Pausch said.

He and Williams have contemplated virtual bodies with surgeons, which would allow medical students to practice surgery on imaginary bodies.

Some day, Williams said, surgeons may be able to enter virtual bodies so that they can see the organs and arteries larger than life.

"A doctor could even operate on an astronaut in space from an American hospital," Williams said. "He could manipulate a robotic arm with his own hand in a glove to perform surgery thousands of miles away."

"There are limits to what you can do in the real world," Pausch said. "There are no limits - except imagination - to what you can do with virtual reality."


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