Virtual Reality Is Getting Real: Prepare to Meet Your Clone

Article excerpt

Uirtual reality is not get an everyday reality, but in the next 10 to 20 gears, VR experiences will be fully integrated into reel life. We'll "attend" meetings, practice surgical techniques, trauel to exotic places, test design flaws before building things, and create digital clones to be our representatives in uirtual worlds.

Uirtual reality is advancing rapidly, though almost unnoticed. VR is beginning to be used extensively in avatar creation, assistive technologies, communications, design, engineering, entertainment, medicine, and many other fields. In both the near-term and longer-term future, it will be used even more extensively and in sometimes surprising ways.

In 1996, VR was being overhyped, and many of us were forced to caution readers to keep a sense of perspective. Many people, including VR practitioners, took that advice. Virtual reality, or at least the term, went into hiding.

"Virtual reality went underground," says VR expert and developer Bill Coyle of visualpark.net. "Even software vendors pulled the plug." Two of VR's key magazines, VR World and VR Special Report, folded.

Coyle believes the term VR will soon come back into vogue, but clearly we need a reality check on virtual reality.

What Is VR?

Virtual reality is best defined as a computer-generated 3-D experience in which a user can navigate around, interact with, and be immersed in another environment or world in real time, or "at the speed of life." VR exists parallel to our everyday world.

Multisensory experiences are potentially a characteristic of VR, but that is not necessarily true today. Much of VR now is only visual. Some VR developers add an audio component to their work; VR expert Brenda Laurel reports that when audio is added to video in VR the video seems more real and vibrant. Some developers are also working on our senses of smell and touch, but their work is quite preliminary. These senses are much harder to mimic and refresh than the visual and auditory. I don't know of anyone who is trying to build a sense of taste into VR. However, in the future, as the technology progresses, multisensory dimensions may be viewed as necessary for VR.

VR's Other Dimensions

Within about five years you should be able to run slick, consumer-oriented VR on your desktop computer and advanced VR applications on office workstations; tomorrow's supercomputers should be able to do incredible things to enhance the VR experience.

In the longer-term future (10 to 20 years), you should be able to experience advanced VR from the comfort of your home, with much of it coming to you over the Internet or whatever supersedes it. VR should become an integral part of business, substituting virtual trips for "real" travel to attend meetings, create products, or conduct inspections.

VR on the Internet has come along slowly. The problem seems not to be the speed of the Internet backbone or its capabilities, but the bandwidth of the last mile to your house. Forget about standard Internet service, DSL, cable, or even faster lines to provide the bandwidth you need. Except for the fastest connections (like OC3) of the Internet2 used by major research universities, they're just not fast enough to handle the data needed to transmit high-quality VR. However, it is anticipated that this problem will be solved in the next few years as fiberoptic cable or other fast transmission media reach our houses and businesses. These obstacles appear to be more economic than technological.

VR will also affect communications. Even defining ordinary words becomes a problem as VR mimics the real world. One of my clients started talking about using puppets for a product demonstration. I assumed she was talking about virtual puppets, common in VR. She was actually talking about real, physical puppets. And when you are talking about your office, your files, or your desktop, already you must distinguish between the office that your computer is in and the "office" that is in your computer. …