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
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
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
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
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.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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