`Virtual Reality' Hooks Architects Clients Can `Enter' the Building before It Is Constructed, and Designers Can Try Experiments

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THE term "virtual reality" has been tossed around for a few years now by computer wizards, and this new technology is beginning to revolutionize the field of architecture.

At the American Institute of Architects convention here on June 22, a young renaissance man named Jaron Lanier described the process that allows a person to "enter" a computer-generated environment through a complex system of computer imaging and high-technology gear.

By donning a helmet or other specialized clothing wired to a computer, the user can place himself inside the "scene," manipulate his activity, and rearrange objects by moving his fingers. The scene appears to the viewer in three-dimensions. It is like interactive television, but more lifelike because you are actively involved in the scene. The concept has been used successfully in simulating flight training for pilots, race courses for luge teams, and surgery for doctors.

"Virtual reality is more and more a medium of choice for showing very large, complex projects. The interactive loop makes it feel more real," Mr. Lanier says of the connection made between the person and his artificial three-dimensional environment.

Lanier, who has been credited with coining the phrase "virtual reality," was casually dressed and sported waist-length strawberry-blond dreadlocks as unconventional as his topic.

The philosophy for virtual reality is based on the senses of the human body, according to Lanier. The head-mounted display provides each eye with images, and ears with stereo sound. The orientation of the person's head is transmitted to the computer. The glove provides the sense of touch and measures where your hand is in space.

"Images you see have to pass through the computer on their way to you for play-back information captured in computer simulation," says Lanier. "Magic happens when you connect them together so you have multiple users sharing the same virtual space," Lanier says. Simultaneously, architects could decide on elements of the design, and plug them in the system.

"The relationship of tools like this for architects is like sheet music to a symphony orchestra," says Lanier, who is also an accomplished pianist. …