Virtual Reality: World of Man's Creation
One of the most fascinating technologies made possible by the computer age is virtual reality (VR). The research into this field was initially pioneered during the 1970s and early '80s in an attempt to mimic the map of the human brain. The United States Air Force was one of the first organizations to test the practical use of this revolutionary technique.The Air Force had become painfully aware that the complexities and prohibitive costs of training pilots might jeopardize the availability and limit the skills of its "top gun" aviators. What evolved was the development of the VCASS (Visually Coupled Airborne System Simulator) virtual cockpit. A pilot wears a mechanism that inputs information directly into the senses - visual, auditory and tactile - enabling the wearer to most effectively interact with the visual world being presented.
During an interview Dr. Thomas A. Furness III gave to Online magazine (May 27, 1992), Furness described VR as "a 'reality' because you perceive it as if it is a world. . . . You're perceiving it as if it becomes reality itself."
The ability to simulate reality allows for applications that may be seen as nothing short of revolutionary. Dr. Duncan Bell of the Ipswich Hospital in England is working to deliver a system in which an operation is performed remotely while watching computer-generated images of the patient instead of the patient's actual tissue. Dr. David Heatley, a laser physicist at British Telecom Ltd. said, "This would be a very effective way of spreading limited and valuable resource by linking hospitals that may not have a specialist in that particular field with a hospital that does have one."
More mundane uses of this technology include allowing purchasers of a new kitchen design to don head-mounted displays (HMDs) and interact with a virtual reality of the kitchen in question. Immediate changes to the VR kitchen can be made interactively, ensuring the final satisfaction of the customer. Some existing video game systems are already taking advantage of products made possible by this technology (for example, the power glove for Nintendo).
As with any new technology, the possible benefits from the incorporation of virtual reality are virtually boundless. But like so many other scientific discoveries, we might also take the capabilities of this new paradigm of dealing with information and create "virtual worlds" that mirror the nature of fallen humanity.
Work is currently underway at North Carolina State University to provide proper "tactile" inputs to the user of a VR system. This new sensory dimension is already being investigated as to how it might be incorporated into VR gaming systems, allowing for the player of the game not only to see and hear the results of actions taken in the VR world but actually to feel the results of the actions played out.
Many parents perceive the possible harmful effects of violence from the two-dimensional worlds of television and movies. Due to the graphic violence portrayed by some video games, concerns are currently being voiced on the floor of the U.S. Congress regarding the possible need to regulate these games. How much greater will the concerns be when the young players of such games are placed in an entire virtual reality? "Just like escapism through drugs, people may escape reality through computers," Emory University professor Jadish Sheth told The Atlanta Constitution. "Virtual reality will be the drug of choice by the early 21st century." The article goes on to say that not many people are listening to the alarms of scientists.
Professor Tom Milazzo of Greensboro College (N.C.) speculates that the contradictions created by artificial life could lead to a world of "moral relativity, where no one is responsible for their actions. You get what you have now, a society in the advanced stages of social disintegration. . . . You can break any rule without consequences [in VR]. All that changes the way we behave in the physical world. People are taught (in the computer world) that they can murder and the dead will live again."
In the real world, the ramifications are different. As we look to the next century, "reality" itself will be redefined. The stakes are high.