Artificial Reality

Voice Card  -  Volume 13  -  Paul Card Number 1  -  Thu, Mar 8, 1990 11:25 PM

The VOGON News Service
Edition: 1988
Wednesday 24-Jan-1990
Circulation: 7792

Artificial Reality - Computer simulations one day may provide surreal experiences

{The Wall Street Journal, 23-Jan-90, p. A1}

Jaron Lanier, a 29-year-old high-school dropout and computer whiz, is the most articulate and attention-grabbing member of a loose network of artificial-reality researchers and inventors. They have a vision of Americans working and playing in electronic fantasy worlds that, they say, will transform entertainment, education, engineering, medicine and many other fields of endeavor - pornography among them.

"This is far more important than the development of the personal computer," contends Michael McGreevey, who oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's work in artificial reality. "You're not constrained by keyboards, 'mice' and monitors," he says. "You can explore living environments."

The crude artificial-reality machines that already exist are the product of 25 years of research by the Air Force, NASA, several universities and individuals such as Mr. Lanier, who is something of a maverick in the field. He is founder and CEO of VPL Research Inc., a 16-person artificial reality firm in Redwood City, Calif.

Even now, artificial worlds are in use. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, fighter pilots train in artificial cockpits. Outfitted with special goggles and headphones, they both see and hear the battle.

"This really gets your juices flowing," says Thomas Furness, until recently head of Wright-Patterson's artificial reality project. "They come out of the cockpit sweating, wrung out."

Architects and designers are exploring artificial reality. A University of North Carolina computer scientist has designed a program that allows architects to design a building and, after putting on the appropriate devices, lead a client on a tour of it. If a client wants larger windows in his office, the architect simply grabs the window with his electronically gloved hands and enlarges it.

Many other projects are in the works. Dozens of companies in the U.S., Japan and Europe have purchased devices from Mr. Lanier's firm, VPL Research Inc., to study ways to exploit the technology of artificial reality. Its unlimited potential for creating environments that a properly wired subject can see, feel and control explains all the interest.

"This is probably the most powerful stimulation to the imagination ever," says Brenda Laurel, a Los Gatos, Calif., computer consultant who has followed developments in artificial reality for a decade.

How does it work? Besides supplying computer-generated images, VPL's goggles contain a magnetic tracking mechanism that responds to movements of a person's head, causing the field of vision to shift as it might in the real world. Moving the glove signals the computer to move objects in the artificial environment. Sensors stitched in the "data suit" can signal body movements by the wearer and change the visual perspective as if the wearer were moving through the scene. The sensing devices are connected by fiber optic cables to computers that update the visuals 15 to 30 times a second.

What the viewer sees is close to some sort of reality. A literal, holographic-style replication isn't necessarily the objective, though eventually that may be possible. "When you effectively create the illusion of being in an alternate reality," Mr. Lanier recently explained in a lecture at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, "you literally treat things that aren't real as real."

Still, today's systems fall short of that. "I felt as if I were in a theater and could still see what's going on backstage," says Eric Hulteen, who has tried an artificial reality system developed by NASA. "The movement was slow, the images cartoon-like, and it was hard to grab anything. But I enjoyed it."

The hardware is expensive: $8,800 for a glove, $9,400 for goggles, up to $500,000 for a complete system - "a lot of money for a hit of acid," quips Eric Lyons, director of technology for Autodesk Inc., a Sausalito, Calif., concern developing artificial-reality software...

Others fault Mr. Lanier's showmanship and say he is overselling artificial reality. "He's bumbling around with toys," says James Clark, chairman of Silicon Graphics Inc., maker of the high-speed graphics computers central to Mr. Lanier's system. Mr. Clark thinks that computer goggles and clothing are too constraining, and won't enter wide use.

Mr. Lanier disagrees, insisting he's chosen the richest technical path toward artificial reality. "We're certainly the pioneers of this field," he asserts. In any case, he says, technical considerations are in a sense trivial when compared with the dream-fulfilling promise of artificial reality.

He is eager to pursue it; asked how he plans to spend a weekend, he answers: "I'll be busy. I've got some worlds to create."

[The article also discusses VPL Research and companies who've dealt with it. - TT]