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No. 591:
Virtual Reality

Today, we walk through the looking glass. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our technologies change life so radically! And change is terrifying. Try this one. It's called virtual reality. Computer people are now creating the sensation of being in another world.

That's something we've all imagined. It's the stuff of science fiction. In the movie Total Recall a computer gave Arnold Schwarzenegger a synthetic trip to Mars. Soon, he didn't know which of his lives was synthetic and which was real.

Now we're starting to make computers that can do that to us. They're in their rudest infancy, but they're evolving fast. Right now, you can enter a comic book scene and move about in it. The two agents of your entry are those medieval symbols of the warrior entering battle. They are the helmet and the glove.

The glove is equipped with magnetic sensors. Point a finger left or right, and that's the way you move into the scene. Point up and you levitate skyward. The glove actually lets you feel the things you see in picture.

The helmet gives you a field of vision. Turn your head left and the scene swings left. Lean back and you see upward.

A group at the University of North Carolina has created a variation. You walk on a treadmill, but you see yourself going through a building that exists only in blueprints. You can find out if an architect's ideas feel right.

You'll soon be able to use your whole body to play tennis with a computer opponent. You can already be Alice in a computer-simulated Wonderland. As the technology evolves, we'll see more and more unobtrusive means for picking up our body motions and putting them into the action.

Virtual reality will let designers experience machines before they build them. It'll let doctors go through operations before they pick up a real scalpel. It'll let chemists live within materials, right on the molecular level.

But, like all new technologies, this one signals danger. It means meddling with our dreams -- and our dreams are precious. Virtual reality fuzzes the line where reality ends and dreams begin. Moral issues can surface. Sex and violence are no longer games when they take on this level of palpable reality. What damage might we do by giving them such presence in our lives?

For 30,000 years, one technology after another has shaped us as a species. Each new one has been more frightening than the last. Yet we absorb one after the other and make it serve us.

Virtual reality could take us past illusion to madness. Yet it harbors a huge bounty of possibility. We'll brave its dangers and profit from doing so. And we'll never be the same again.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Ditlea, S., Another World: Inside Artificial Reality. PC Computing, Vol. 2 No. 11, Nov. 1989, pp. 90-99, 101-102.

Rheingold, H., Virtual Reality. New York: Summit Books, 1991.

Heilbrun, A., An Interview with Jaron Lanier. Whole Earth Review, No. 64, Fall, 1989, pp. 108-119.

I am grateful to Charles Bailey, UH Library, for his counsel on this episode.