Virtual reality is an experience many people associate with bizarre bug-eye helmets, electrode-studded gloves and powerful workstation computers.
But two new software inventions shown last week at the Digital World conference in Los Angeles hold the promise of bringing a tame form of virtual reality to the technologically timid, without requiring them to dress as if they were going to a class reunion at the University of Mars.
But first, it's time for a reality check on virtual reality.
The virtual reality that everyone wants is portrayed on the "holodeck" of the starship Enterprise on the recently departed "Star Trek: The Next Generation" television series: the participant is immersed in an environment that is indistinguishable from real life, except that it is weirder.
The virtual reality that really exists on Earth today is similar to being immersed in a bad cartoon that is projected onto sweaty stereo goggles, creating the impression of three-dimensionality.
The virtual environment is almost always computer generated, with raw polygons and planes and spheres. On really expensive computers, the cartoons are of higher quality.
The virtual reality that most of us will encounter first is really nothing more than a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene, displayed on a regular computer monitor. The computer operator maneuvers through the virtual space by moving a mouse or joystick. There is little chance for motion sickness or adrenalin rushes.
Even so, this ersatz virtual reality can be fun. And it just got more fun with the arrival of new software from two California companies, Apple Computer Inc. of Cupertino and Knowledge Adventure Inc. of La Crescenta. Both programs use 360-degree views of scenes and allow users to wander about at random, but they will have different applications.
Apple demonstrated a prototype of Quicktime VR, which will first show up this fall in a CD-ROM game called "Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual."
The game, from Simon Schuster Interactive (a division of Simon Schuster, which is a division of Paramount Communications Inc., which is a subsidiary of Viacom Inc.), will allow Macintosh and Windows owners, even without goggles and gloves, to prowl the corridors of the Enterprise.
Unlike other similar walk-through-the-spaceship games ("Colony" and "Iron Helix" come to mind), this program depicts the Enterprise with real photo quality, because the 360-degree views are indeed photographic, not computer generated polygons.
Quicktime VR makes it relatively easy for software makers _ not consumers, at least not yet _ to use regular 35-millimeter cameras to produce panoramic photos that are then distorted to create a software "room."
Rooms can be linked to create virtual miles of aisles, but since each room consumes nearly a megabyte of disk space, a CD-ROM disk is the probable medium instead of floppies.
I have not seen "Star Trek: The Technical Manual," but you can imagine something like …