The rapid advances and dependence of computers

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The rapid advances and dependence of computers from the later part of the 20th century is bewildering. Virtual Reality or VR is a relatively new invention that allows users to explore a computer generated world by actually being in it. A history of VR, its many applications as well as its advantages and disadvantages will be presented. The concept of re-creating reality is not new. 1 Spaces of illusion were popular since the sixteenth century. Painters often utilise perspective to project space onto Chapel frescos and ceilings.

(Fig A) Andrea Pozzo’s The Nave of Sant’ Ignazio depicts a vision of heaven on the ceilings of the church. He used techniques of illusion in order to extend the physical limits of the ceiling, as if heaven and the church were one and the same place. 3 In 1793, Paul Sandby developed a technique where panoramic views in the correct perspective could be applied onto a circular canvas. When viewed from the centre of the canvas, it appeared undistorted. 4 In 1830, Sir Charles Wheaton developed the stereoscope that allowed viewers to view a single picture from two angles.

Presenting different views to each eye gives the illusion of three dimensions (3D). 5 In 1963, Mort Heilig invented the film-based Sensorama, which engaged all the five senses. A single user would place his head in a visor and experienced riding a motorcycle. 6 (Fig B) In 1965, Ivan Sutherland created the first transparent, 3D head-mounted display (HMD). (Fig C) It was so heavy and large it had to be suspended from a ceiling and allowed only crude outline-styled cubes.

Sutherland wrote “The fundamental idea behind the three-dimensional display is to present the user with a perspective image which changes as he moves. “7 The main difference from its predecessors was there is an element of interactivity and immersion. The user could walk about and feel part of the computer-generated world. At the same time, another researcher Myron Kreuger was working on something similar. He utilised projection systems as well as pressure floor pads to immerse the user into a spatial world. His system allowed users to draw images on screens with their fingers.

Virtual reality has three essential components: it is immersive, interactive and it occurs in real-time. It consists of a main computer which generates 3D graphics onto a display and an input device. 9 The display can either be a HMD or projected onto a two dimensional flat screen. The experience can be further enhanced by sound cues such as glass breaking, a door shutting etc. Sensors embedded into gloves, bodysuits, joysticks or helmet feed instructions to the computer. They detect gestures in hands, head, eye and body movements.

Each time the sensors detect a change, the computer generates a whole new set of images that is updated onto the screen. All these are done sixty times a second. 10 There are three main types of virtual reality. The first, a small screen and earphones are embedded into a helmet. The second is where a video camera tracks and places the image of a user into the VR world while he interacts with objects. The third is to project the computer generated images onto a curved screen to get the immersive qualities. 11 VR offers a unique medium for artists.

No longer were they limited to the boundaries of the 2D canvas. Through collaborations with engineers, the marriage of Science and Art produces the most complex method of producing a visual effect. References include Charlotte Davies’s Osmose (1995) (Fig D) and Maurice Banayoun’s World Skin (1997) (Fig E). Osmose takes its viewers into an immersive interactive environment with interactive sound. 12 13 Participants don a HMD and a vest where sensors detect breathing and balance: Breathe inwards to float upwards, lean forward to move forward.

The participants navigate through 12 different virtual environments such as a fog, forest, ocean and DNA strands that merge fluidly and enigmatically into each other. Charlotte worked with a sound designer and an engineer on three Onyx214 Infinite Reality Silicon Graphics workstations, churning out a total of 20,000 lines of computer code. 15 Some participants “compare it to lucid dreaming or an out-of-body experience. “16 In World Skin, Participants navigate through a war-torn landscape. Wearing Liquid Crystal Glasses and holding joysticks, they navigate through endless images of soldiers, tanks, ruined buildings.

This installation is implemented by a newly developed CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) (Fig F) in which a camera tracks the users profile and using a back projector, projects back on the semi translucent walls, the blocked shadowed areas caused by being in the room, thus leaving no space blanked out. This gives the illusion of actually being in the environment. 17 In a project spearheaded by Patrice Renaud at the University of Quebec, existing commercial games are customised to create worlds to treat phobias such as claustrophobia.

Exposing the patient’s fears in a safe controlled environment has been shown to be an effective form of therapy. 18 VR also allow surgeons to practice a procedure before conducting the actual surgery. Failures during the practice will not result in injury or death. NASA researchers have developed Cyberscapel, a VR system for surgeons to plan an operation of a cancer of the jaw. 19 Presenting a 3D model of architecture to the clients before actually building is common practice nowadays. This practice detects overlooked design flaws and prevents costly mistakes.

Rather than viewing an animation of the building, users can walk through the design in areas they want. 20 The introduction of Computer Aided Design and Drafting (CADD) by AutoDesk allows the design of complex modelling in 3D possible. 21 Military simulators such as the one developed by the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory train fighter pilots. Simulated threat data is fed into the virtual cockpit radar screens and trainees can engage war games with a virtual missile. Flight simulators are much better than a real airplane because they are much safer and save expensive fuel.

During the Gulf war, simulations were used to familiarise soldiers with the geography of the Kuwait desert. At the time of the actual battle, they knew it better than the Iraqis. 23 In the future, wars can be fought virtually without being physically there in the battlefield. This concept is not far-off as doctors can already remotely operate on a patient using robotic arms. 24 Despite the attractiveness, VR has its drawbacks. There is an obvious issue of cost. The equipment used in VR systems is exorbitant. Although declining steadily, the cost is still substantial.

An Onyx machine in 1995 costs more than a million US dollars. As of July 2003, a similar system costs US$250,00025. Another problem is that the hardware gets obsolete quickly and needs upgrading frequently. 26 The HMD and projectors used are fragile and are expensive to replace. The high cost of hiring an engineer is also a necessity. The physical consequences of using VR have not been addressed fully. Users of VR have reported feeling disoriented and nauseous. 27 Burdea explains the simulation sickness is “caused by sensorial conflict between visual feedback that is in motion and the inner ear which is still.

It is aggravated by poor image resolution. ” She notes even the highest displays will not totally eradicate the problem. 28 There are also questions of whether prolonged viewing of LCD screens at a close proximity will cause permanent ocular damage or if the weight of the helmet will permanently damage neck muscles. Riva lists out other problems such as degraded limb and postural control; reduced sense of presence and development of wrong responses. 29 Who will pay for or govern the usage of VR? Some citizens and countries will not be able to afford VR systems and thus widen the digital divide.

The less industrially developed nations will be disadvantaged. Conversely, no computer system is foolproof and vulnerable to viral attacks. Hackers and terrorist organisations could sabotage the networks. 31 New laws governing VR will have to be set up. Virtual actors have become a reality. This is illustrated in the movie S1m0ne 32 where a director (Al Pacino) in a desperate attempt to replace a difficult actor (Winona Ryder) who quit on him, secretly replaces her with a virtual actress named Simone. Its viewers couldn’t distinguish her as non-human and worships her nevertheless.

The technology is currently available using full body scanning. The director could use the body map of an actor and made it do whatever he wished in a VR environment. 33 This technique was employed in the courtyard scene in The Matrix Reloaded34 which was entirely put together in the computer. Full body scans of Keanu Reeves were mapped onto the faces of stunt doubles, or where impossible, computer modelled figures. 35 36 There are artistic and ethical questions that need to be answered. Who owns or is responsible for the usage of the body map?

The consequences will be dire if it was used in a criminal act in a VR world. There is a worrying prediction of addiction and escapism. As VR technologies improve, it might be viable one day where we can download all our thoughts and responses into a virtual world and live virtual lives. VR will provide enjoyable worlds and there will be people who will have a problem leaving it. There will be those who cannot cope with the real world who rather escape to a perfect predictable world. This can be likened to vices like alcohol and drugs or gambling. 37

On an extreme, the excessive usage of VR could also numb our ability to visualise or use our sense of imagination without a computer. Books will mean nothing to us. Why read a book when you can experience it? A comparison would be the overdependence of calculators. It has become pointless in performing mental arithmetic. Technology has its upside and downside. While there are initial teething hiccups with current display technologies and development of input devices are at its infancy, VR looks set to be an integral part of our lives in the near future.

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