Virtual Revolution

During man's long history, some event happens to disturb the status quo. The disturbance is such that the world is forever transformed after its passing. The Agricultural Revolution brought mankind out of the caves and placed him toiling in the fields. The last technological transformation, the Industrial Revolution, send mankind off in new directions undreamed of by previous generations. We stand on the threshold of the next great metamorphosis of society. This new technological revolution, as with those before it, will forever change the way we live, make war, design our homes, get medical treatment and entertain ourselves. This new technological development that will have such a great impact on our lives is Virtual Reality, known to some as Cyberspace.

To some, both the terms Virtual Reality and Cyberspace may be new, but we are all very familiar with the concept of cyberspace. John Barlow, lyrics writer for the Grateful Dead, gave us a very real concept of cyberspace "Cyberspace is where your money is at." It so easy to forget that for most of us our bank balance is nothing more than bits of electronic data, it exists only within the world of the computer. Simply put, Virtual Reality is the computer generated, interactive, simulation of real life. It's like being inside a video game. Gabriel D. Ofeish, Emerities Professor of Educational Technology at Howard University gave the simplest example of virtual reality "As long as you can see the screen you're not in virtual reality. When the screen disappears, and you see an imaginary scene . . . then you are in virtual reality."
The world that will exist beyond the screen is a world without substance; it exists solely within the computer's memory. It is only limited by the amount of resources devoted to it. Adventurers within the virtual universe will see and hear those things that computer experts have created for the world of the computer. Computer programmers are currently working on building vast databases of stored images, of every shape and size.

There are some who foresaw this future revolution, Ivan Sutherland saw it as early as 1966 when he started the first work on creating the illusion of actually seeing computer generated images. Sutherland built the window to the virtual world, the head mounted display. Only 20 years ago, Alan Kay started imagining different ways of interaction between computers and human beings. He envisioned a future world where computers are worn as body ware. Today, NEC is working on a wearable a portable cyberspace/data system.

While still in its infancy, Virtual Realty has current applications. The United States military has long been using movie footage to train pilots. Virtual Reality flight simulators offer real time training of pilots and tank commanders. Today, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) is spending large amounts of Defense funding into the prospect of using virtual reality to train our armed forces. Commercial airline pilots also benefit from such virtual training, making air lines much safer modes of travel, letting pilots build up hundreds of hours of flight time in all types of conditions, totally without risk.

The demand for non-military virtual reality is bringing the elaborate and complex designs of engineers and architects off the paper and into reality. In Japan the future has already arrived as architects in Tokyo use virtual reality to simulate a kitchen design for new homes. The virtual reality programming makes the kitchen so realistic that viewers can open virtual drawers, put away virtual dishes, and even hear the sounds of virtual water faucets filling realistic virtual sinks. Engineers are starting to use virtual reality to design intricate and sophisticated components in three-dimensional environments. Research chemists and physicists are replacing their tinker toy models of molecules with real time objects in virtual reality.

Virtual Reality is also training students in the complexities of factory design. At West Denton High School in New Castle, England, students are using a virtual reality program called Dangerous Workplace to explore the realities of factory design and operation from scratch. A safer and more efficient workplace is ensured before the first beam is laid.

Virtual Reality will totally change how we, in the real world, interact with each other. Just as the telephone, fax machine, and email changed the methods by which businessmen communicate with each other, so will Virtual Reality. Since more than one user can share in the same virtual reality world, an interesting application of Virtual Reality in business is for meetings and conferences to be held in cyberspace. The cyberspace conference room will allow real time meetings to be held with business people from around the world, with no person actually leaving their office.

The medical world will be transformed by virtual reality. Doctors will be able to see into the human body, presumably with telemetry data coming from small probes injected into the body of the patient. The use of ultrasound images is already being used; allowing doctors limited sight into the internal workings of the human body. Even though the technology is in its early stages, doctors are already planning to use Virtual Reality in surgical operations. Virtual constructs of the human body will involve using digital image processing of X rays and ultrasound computations. This process of using Virtual Reality to be some place you're not is defined by cyber revolutionists as telepresence. Just as doctors are planning on using telepresence to explore the human body, NASA Ames Research Center is using telepresence to explore alien worlds. In the 1980's NASA Ames Research Center started using data from Mars probes to create a computer model of Mars. Mars was then explored using the technology of virtual reality.

The drawback of current Virtual Reality systems is their slowness. Current computers are still far too slow to create true cyberspace. Some people have minor feelings of nausea (dubbed "cyber-sickness" by those on the cutting edge) caused by the time delay between actual movement and on screen action. James P. Jenkins, program manger for Human-Systems Technology of NASA, explained that the cure for cyber-sickness is better computer systems. In order to combat both sluggish system performance and low-resolution display, Dr. Thomas Furness at the University of Washington believes that virtual reality designers should abandon the concept of placing television screens in front of the eyes. Instead he proposes to write images directly on the retina of the eye with micro-lasers.

Future computers, possibly those able to meet the demands of virtual reality, will be based not on electrical impulses but on optical impulses. At the University of Colorado computer science students constructed what they hope is the next generation in thinking machines. Their experimental prototype is an optical computer that uses lasers and zero gravity grown crystal switches to store and manipulate data.

To us, we who stand on the threshold of the cyber revolution, the future of computers and virtual reality is just as unforeseeable as great literature was to cuneiform scribes in ancient Egypt.