VIRTUAL-reality technology has the potential to become a tool to
enhance the quality of life, a window onto invisible worlds, and a
liberating force for good minds trapped in bodies diagnosed as
But the technology also has the potential to become a dangerous
brainwashing device or a form of imprisonment through illusion.
The full potential of this technology will take 10 or 20 years
to manifest itself. Now is an ideal time for a widespread public
discussion of the benefits and liabilities of virtual-reality-based
Virtual reality creates the illusion of immersion in an
artificial world or of presence in a remote location in the
physical world. To enter virtual reality, a person puts on a
head-mounted display. A pair of tiny television tubes, special
optics, and a device that tracks the position of the user's head
are mounted in the display so that when it is worn, the normal view
of the outside world is blocked.
In its place is a three-dimensional depiction of a "world model"
that exists in a computer. The display is linked to the computer,
and the user's motions are transmitted to the computer, which
updates the world model.
You can look behind objects to see what is there. You can look
at the floor or the ceiling. You can zoom upward and look down on
Instead of seeing a depiction of an artificial world on a flat
screen, the user is literally surrounded by the depiction. This
"virtual world" can consist of a real or imaginary room, a city, a
molecule, a solar system, the interior of a human body - anything
that can be modeled by a computer.
A glove is also connected to the computer. The glove contains
sensors that track not only the position of the hand, but the
degree of flex of the fingers. When you wear a display and a
sensor-equipped glove, you can see a depiction of a hand floating
in the artificial space in which you are immersed. When you move
your hand or wiggle your fingers in physical space, you see the
hand in artificial space move and wiggle in exactly the same way.
Acoustic spaces can also be simulated and add to the power of
the illusion of being in a place that exists only inside a
computer. It is also possible to use electromechanical, hydraulic,
and pneumatic equipment to simulate being acted on by a force, to
feel the texture of objects, and, to a limited degree, to feel the
shape of objects.
The use of virtual reality as a scientific visualization tool is
enough to guarantee its place in history. The microscope made
biology and modern medicine possible, because it gave scientists a
window onto the world of the very tiny. The telescope helped create
the foundation for the Renaissance by offering a window onto the
world of very distant objects, thus changing our image of
humanity's place in the universe.
Virtual reality offers another window, but one that a scientist
can climb through to interact directly and bodily with scientific
abstractions: Virtual reality has the potential to become a
microscope for the mind. …