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Virtual Reality: The Potentials and The Pitfalls

04 06 92

Imagine you're walking through a house--a fire crackles in the brick fireplace, an ebony grand piano plays in the living room, and glasses clink around the wooden dining room table. The images you see and the sounds you hear are quite lifelike, yet you are not actually in this house at all. (1)

This is virtual reality--experiencing things that may or may not be real, seeing the invisible, and making the abstract concrete(to the senses)--and it has the power to change the way we live, for better, or for worse. The proof is in the phycological considerations necessary for, and effects created by virtual reality. These consideration and effects include our(mankind's) perceptions of reality, recording and transferring large amounts of information(for future generations), and our most highly developed senses and abilities.

The fact that virtual reality can make something which is not real look real will change our perception of reality. It will be possible to make the world exactly the way we want it(virtually, of course). This aspect of virtual reality is what makes it so promising, and so frightening. As it is,

The technology exists today to intercept an analog video signal and its sound track, digitize them, edit them in real time, and send them back into the analog world with so little delay that no one is the wiser. Real-time, on-line image and soundtrack crunching is now possible.

Seeing is no longer believing, and no videotape or photograph can be considered evidence of the truth. (2)

Along with the pitfall of possible abuse, however, comes a great potential to change the way we deal with scientific problems. If seeing and manipulating molecules as if they were the size of stones becomes perceived as reality, scientists will be able to solve problems in totally new, and easier ways. The fact is that, "The choices you make as you are creating an application[solving a problem] are directly controlled by the environment you work in." (3) The environment you work in, and use to share information with others also affects how easy it is for them to understand what you did, because it affects your perception of reality.

Transferring information by use of virtual reality, and changing perceptions of reality, as we know it, is not a new idea. In fact, there seems to be evidence that tribesmen in the Upper Palaeolithic probably used this technique, as shown by the following discussion of cave paintings, many which were painted on protuberances to give a three dimensional effect when viewed in the right light (4),

The collective knowledge of the band society was on the rise, demanding far more powerful systems of record-keeping--and there was no writing...

One way of preparing people for imprinting has been known for a long time by tribes everywhere, modern as well as prehistoric: bring them into unfamiliar, alien, and unpleasant places, part of the procedure known in modern times as brainwashing...

Considering the technologies available at the time, the people of the Upper Palaeolithic seem to have made use of every trick in the book, piling special effect upon special effect in an effort to ensure the preservation and transmission of the tribal encyclopedia. (5)

Considering that we have a similar situation (except that we have writing), it seems logical that virtual reality would show up now to help us pass on information.

Virtual reality is so effective imparting such large amounts of information in a short time, and at changing our perception of reality is that it uses Man's most highly developed abilities and senses. There are three areas in which human minds are superior to computers, and likely will remain so. Pattern recognition--which can be enhanced by using the computer to show patterns in ways in which we can not normally perceive them, evaluations, and a "sense of context that enables us to recall, at the appropriate moment, something that was read in an obscure journal twenty years previously, in reference to a completely different subject, that we suddenly see to be meaningful" (6) are these three areas. On the other hand, the computer is much better at doing repetitive tasks or calculations and at storing large amounts of data without forgetting.

Man also has many senses which have been highly developed. These include seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting. Of these seeing, hearing, and feeling are the most highly developed(and use the most space in the brain). Seeing is already commonly used to transmit information with computer displays, and their[the display's] realism will be improved when they become three dimensional. Hearing is less use but there are many devices to add speech synthesis and music to computer which are readily available, and it appears that it is already fairly realistic(compared to three dimensional sight), because there is less information in sound than sight. And the "haptic" system (which includes tactile sense, and proprioception--the body's ability to know the position of our own limbs in relation to one another and to the space around us) is now being conquered and in fact "Sensing the size and the direction of forces allows them[chemists] to work more efficiently[at joining molecules]." (7)

Imparting information is important, but virtual reality is more than just a passive display device. It is also a tool that allows the computer to respond to our natural abilities. In the case of vision, virtual reality systems change in response to head and eye movement. New technologies such as glove that can sense hand movements and gestures allow new methods of entering information into the computer. For example an in the case of an air traffic controller: "To talk to a particular pilot, he'd reach over and touch the plane with his glove, and radio contact would be established instantly." (8) The potential of fully being in a virtual world, allows for exciting new ways of dealing with information, and solving problems(especially mathematical, and scientific ones).

In conclusion it could be said that virtual reality is not only a better way to solve problems, by involving all the senses, but a way to tailor what seems to us to be reality to our whims. The experience of virtual reality which allows this will change our lives, and our thinking patterns. All we can do is hope that it is for the better.

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