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The Magic Looking Glass

P. Lutus Message Page --

Worldwide Network Magazine, Fall 1992


id you ever have a beautiful dream, then try to describe it to a friend? It's not easy — dreams often have more intensity of color and detail than we can put into words. Throughout history we've tried to record our dreams — cavemen picked up bits of charcoal and drew images on the walls of their caves. Artists of the Renaissance drew beautiful, realistic portraits, and more recent artists have painted imaginary scenes of great beauty and meaning. Writers create fantasy worlds that help us understand our own. Composers write music that represents their dreams — dreams we all can share.

All these ways of expressing ideas can be called "alternate realities." In modern times we have adjusted to things that are make-believe — motion pictures, cartoons, television. And all these alternate realities have something in common — we can't change the story. We have had to accept the artist's vision as our own — until now.

Things are about to change. In computer laboratories all over the world, researchers are experimenting with a new medium of expression called "virtual reality." In virtual reality, powerful computers produce realistic images and sounds and, more important, respond to a person's voice and movements. It isn't television — you get to decide what happens.

In the near future, you may sit down in a chair and put on a helmet that covers your face and blocks your view of the real world — the world that young researchers have begun to call "vanilla reality." The helmet contains twin display screens, one for each eye, and stereo headphones. You will don special gloves that sense the movements of your hands and fingers, and special boots.

Then the computer will be turned on. Maybe you would like to travel to Mars and hike to the top of Olympus Mons, a great volcanic mountain higher than Mount Everest. Or perhaps you want to fly a powerful jet fighter at three times the speed of sound — through the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps you are a chemist who wants to produce a new substance. Instead of trying to imagine how molecules fit together, you simply use your special gloves to pick up the molecules and join them — if you try to make a bond that isn't possible, the molecule (and your hand) is pushed away.

Perhaps you are an architect who wants to walk through a building before it is built. Do the skylights pleasantly illuminate the garden in the central courtyard, as you planned? If they don't, you may reach up and move them, or change their size. You may move the doors and windows to a better position. Is a hallway too narrow? You just push against the sides with your gloves.

Or perhaps you are just a dreamer — you want to create flowers and birds never seen, or travel across the clouds. You want to swim through the ocean with whales and dolphins. Maybe you want to build a dream world and share it with others.

Does this sound like science fiction? Some of what I describe lies in the future, but the stories about the chemist and the architect have already happened.

Virtual reality has been possible for about a decade, but only at very high cost. Some applications have been designed anyway, simply because they are less expensive than the alternatives. For example, airline pilots train on "flight simulators," virtual reality environments so realistic and trusted that the first time a pilot actually flies an airliner, there are passengers on board. Astronauts train to fly the NASA Space Shuttle on simulators also, even though the Shuttle is very heavy and difficult to fly and land. As with airline pilots, the first time an astronaut flies the Shuttle, it is during a mission, and (because the Shuttle glides to a landing with no fuel available) he has one chance to get it right.

We should remember the main reason we are able to read — Gutenberg's invention of the printing press made books inexpensive. And once again, it is an economic change that will bring virtual reality into our lives — computers are quickly becoming less expensive. We will be able to use virtual reality to solve many kinds of problems, or just to entertain ourselves, at no great cost.

Some may object that virtual reality will be like television, only worse. I agree the possibility exists, but I hope virtual reality is granted the legal protection that writing and speaking have now. I think the power of virtual reality to solve scientific problems, to provide a medium for artistic expression, greatly exceeds its negative aspects. Here are some ways virtual reality might be used and misused:

On the positive side:

And on the negative side,

In spite of these risks, I think virtual reality will come to be treated as a fundamental right. As it becomes less expensive, we will find more applications for it in our lives, just as we have with books. Perhaps we will educate ourselves to avoid its abuses, as we now educate ourselves about alcohol.

At this time, researchers are creating the bits and pieces of virtual reality — new ways of communicating with a computer, and new ways for the computer to interact with us. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Margaret Minsky is designing a "texture simulator" that allows you to feel different computer-generated textures — sandpaper, granite — by touching a control handle and "dragging" it across the surface being imitated by the computer. This is the first step toward a tactile environment in which you will not only see objects in virtual space, but grasp and feel them as well.

In another demonstration project, an observer dons a helmet and pedals a bicycle through countryside scenes — scenes produced by a computer. If you pedal the bicycle fast enough, you leave the ground and fly through the air as in the movie "E.T." I hope this idea is used often in the future, because it will keep people physically fit while they experience a make-believe world.

At present, these demonstrations require the use of very powerful and expensive computers — personal computers are still too slow to provide a believable world with all the subtlety of a real-world scene, and the necessary motions and changes we expect to see in real life.

The simplest computer graphic programs show objects in two dimensions (width and height but no depth) and are reasonably quick to replace one image with another. The next step in complexity is to add the third dimension of depth, then sources of light that cast shadows. Present-day small computers can create these more realistic images, but with limited detail. For example, you can buy programs today that give you a sense of flying an airplane through a sort of cardboard-cutout world.

To provide another jump in realism, the computer takes optical effects into account — if you look through a goldfish bowl, the light rays from the room beyond are bent, just as in real life. Glass and mirror surfaces reflect other parts of the scene. Metal is shiny, and clay is not. This level of quality is called "photo-realism," and at first glance it is hard to say whether such an image is real or computer-generated. Figure 1 shows my photo-realistic image of a glass of coke [note: The original figures are not in this reprint, but see my collection of photorealistic images at Computer Art]. When I first generated this image, I wanted to find out whether my equations correctly imitated the real world — would the straw look bent inside the liquid? So I filled a glass, put in a straw, and sure enough, I saw the same effect.

Figure 2 shows a pair of glasses resting on a printed page. For photo-realism, the lenses in the glasses had to bend light rays and the shadows had to fall just as they do in real life. This image was successful, but required ten hours of personal computer time to generate.

Present-day computers are about as fast as they can be — the messages inside the computer are already traveling at almost the speed of light, and cannot travel faster. So how can computers be made faster? Future computers will use many processors at once to solve a problem — the computer will work like a symphony orchestra, each processor providing a small part of the result. This idea, now in development, is called "parallel processing," and scientists believe this is why we humans can still outperform computers — we have many, many individual processes taking place at once.

We've been through many technological revolutions, and each time we measured an invention's success by how well it responded to our control and met our requirements. I believe we will deal with virtual reality in the same way — for a while it will seem as alien as the first airplane in a sky filled with birds, but finally we will see its value and learn to fly it ourselves.

Virtual reality will allow us to explore make-believe worlds, worlds of pure mathematics, pure music, pure sensation. And, if we use this new resource wisely, we will acquire a greater understanding and appreciation for the real world.

Biographical note: Paul Lutus has a wide background in engineering and science. He designed part of the NASA Space Shuttle, then began to develop computer software. His best-known program was "Apple Writer," an early word processor. In research and articles he has explored such topics as computer mathematics and graphics, and in 1985 he was named Scientist of the Year by the Oregon Academy of Science.

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