Visualizing The Future

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality holds tremendous promise for the future. It's still in the experimental stage, but movies like the Matrix and Minority Report are giving us a glimpse of what could be, and most likely will be.

Virtual Reality is a three dimensional, computer generated simulation in which one can navigate around, interact with, and be immersed in another environment

Douglas Engelbart, an electrical engineer and former naval radar technician, is credited with the first exploration into VR. He viewed computers as more than glorified adding machines. It was the 1950s, and TVs had barely turned color. His goal was to connect the computer to a screen.

By the early 1960s, communications technology intersecting with computing and graphics was well underway. Vacuum tubes turned into transistors. Pinball machines were being replaced by video games.

Scientific visualization moved from bar charts, mathematical diagrams and line drawings to dynamic images, using computer graphics. Computerized scientific visualization enabled scientists to assimilate huge amounts of data and increase understanding of complex processes like DNA sequences, molecular models, brain maps, fluid flows, and celestial events. A goal of scientific visualization is to capture the dynamic qualities of a wide range of systems and processes in images, but computer graphics and animation was not interactive. Animation, despite moving pictures, was static because once created, it couldn't be altered. Interactivity became the primary driver in the development of VR.

By the end of the 1980s, super computers and high-resolution graphic workstations were paving the way towards a more interactive means of visualization. As computer technology developed, MIT and other high tech research centers began exploring Human Computer Interaction (HCI), which is still a major area of research, now combined with artificial intelligence.

The mouse seemed clumsy, and such devices as light pens and touch screens were explored as alternatives. Eventually CAD--computer-aided design--programs emerged with the ability of designers to model and simulate the inner workings of vehicles, create blueprints for city development, and experiment with computerized blueprints for a wide range of industrial products.

Flight simulators were the predecessors to computerized programs and models and might be considered the first virtual reality -like environments. The early flight simulators consisted of mock cockpits built on motion platforms that pitched and rolled. A limitation was they lacked visual feedback. This changed when video displays were coupled with model cockpits.

In 1979, the military began experimenting with head-mounted displays. By the early 1980s, better software, hardware, and motion-control platforms enabled pilots to navigate through highly detailed virtual worlds.

A natural consumer of computer graphics was the entertainment industry, which, like the military and industry, was the source of many valuable spin-offs in virtual reality. By the 1970s, some of Hollywood's most dazzling special effects were computer-generated. Plus, the video game business boomed.

One direct spin-off of entertainment's venture into computer graphics was the dataglove, a computer interface device that detects hand movements. It was invented to produce music by linking hand gestures to a music synthesizer. NASA was one of the first customers for the new device. The biggest consumer of the dataglove was the Mattel company, which adapted it into the PowerGlove, and used it in video games for kids. The glove is no longer sold.

Helmet-mounted displays and power gloves combined with 3D graphics and sounds hinted at the potential for experiencing totally immersive environments. There were practical applications as well. Astronauts, wearing goggles and gloves, could manipulate robotic rovers on the surface of Mars. Of course, some people might not consider a person on Mars as a practical endeavor. But at least the astronaut could explore dangerous terrain without risk of getting hurt.

NASA is investigating user interfaces for robots such as AERCam, short for Autonomous Extravehicular Robotic Camera. These are spherical free-flying robots being developed to inspect spacecraft for trouble-spots. AERCam is designed to float outside spacecraft, using small xenon-gas thrusters and solid-state cameras to view the vehicle's outer surfaces and find damage in places where a human spacewalker or an extended robotic arm can't safely go. With a VR system, the astronaut could maneuver the melon-sized AERCam with standard hand controls while intuitive head movements rotate AERCam to let the astronaut "look around."

VR is not just a technological marvel easily engaged like sitting in a movie theater or in front of a TV. Human factors are crucial to VR. Age, gender, health and fitness, peripheral vision, and posture come into play. Everyone perceives reality differently, and it's the same for VR. Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is a major area of research.

The concept of a room with graphics projected from behind the walls was invented at the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle in 1992. The images on the walls were in stereo to give a depth cue. The main advantage over ordinary graphics systems is that the users are surrounded by the projected images, which means that the images are in the users' main field of vision. This environment has been dubbed, "CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment)."

The CAVE is a surround-screen, surround-sound, projection-based virtual reality (VR) system. The illusion of immersion is created by projecting 3D computer graphics into a 10'x10'x10' cube composed of display screens that completely surround the viewer. It is coupled with head and hand tracking systems to produce the correct stereo perspective and to isolate the position and orientation of a 3D input device. A sound system provides audio feedback. The viewer explores the virtual world by moving around inside the cube and grabbing objects with a three-button, wand-like device.

Lightweight stereo glasses replace helmets, so a viewer can walk around inside the CAVE as they interact with virtual objects. Multiple viewers often share virtual experiences and easily carry on discussions inside the CAVE, enabling researchers to exchange discoveries and ideas. One user is the active viewer, controlling the stereo projection reference point, while the rest of the users are passive viewers.

The CAVE was designed from the beginning to be a useful tool for scientific visualization. The CAVE can be coupled to remote data sources, supercomputers and scientific instruments via high-speed networks. Various CAVE-like environments exist all over the world today. Projection on all six surfaces of a room allows users to turn around and look in all directions. Thus, their perception and experience are never limited, which is necessary for full immersion. The PDC Cube at the Center for Parallel Computers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in Sweden is the first fully immersive CAVE.

Any quick review of the history of optics, photography, computer graphics, media, broadcasting and even sci-fi, is enough to believe VR will become as commonplace as the TV and movies. There are far too many practical applications, such as in surgery, flight simulation, space exploration, chemical engineering and underwater exploration.

But just wait until Hollywood stops speculating and starts experimenting. The thought of being chased by Freddy Kruger is one thing, but to actually be chased by Freddy Kruger is utterly terrifying. No more jumping out of seats when the face of a giant shark snaps its teeth as us. Now we can really know what it's like to be chased by cops speeding down a thruway at 100 mph. We can feel and smell pineapples on a tropical beach. We can catch bad guys, defeat aliens in a starship battle, and have conversations with Presidents in our bare feet. With virtual reality, the only limit is the imagination.

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