The press stands accused. Accused of taking up the hype surrounding Virtual Reality, with the result that potential users trying out prototypes of the technology have been disappointed with the poor quality of what they’ve experienced. Just to re-cap, virtual reality is that bizarre computer technology that enables the user to enter a virtual world, […]
The press stands accused. Accused of taking up the hype surrounding Virtual Reality, with the result that potential users trying out prototypes of the technology have been disappointed with the poor quality of what they’ve experienced. Just to re-cap, virtual reality is that bizarre computer technology that enables the user to enter a virtual world, created in three-dimensional computer graphics mixed with video and audio. The user can choose to be fully immersed in the virtual world, by donning a visual headset, a set of headphones and a pair of data gloves for tactile feedback, or use a desktop system that doesn’t require the same level of absorption. (For a full description of a virtual reality experience, see Computergram issue 1,751.) Brenda Laurel, of NASA virtual reality research spin-off Telepresence Research Inc, in Los Gatos, California, is one virtual reality pioneer who warns against hyping the technology at what is still a very elementary stage of development. Specialising in the realm of computer-based entertainment, Ms Laurel warns that researchers will be bitten in the ass if they over-promise on what the technology can offer – people will be put off and research grants may be severed.
She cautions too against getting caught up in the standards game before time, noting that while multimedia technology tried to arrive as early as 1978 with the introduction of video disks, it has not begun to take off until very recently. Instead of prototyping examples of how the technology could be used, she explains, the subsequent 12 years have been spent quibbling over standards definition and data compression formats. Speaking at the Interface to Real & Virtual Worlds conference in Montpellier, France last month, she said that virtual reality research must learn from the mistakes made with multimedia, and not try too early to define standards: it will take our minds off the main issue. What’s needed, it would seem, is some sort of concerted effort in pushing out the technology so that potential users can see it, play with it and decide what it could be good for. Only when a real need has been defined can there be any real sense of direction, and only then will there be an influx of financial backing. One example of where virtual reality is actually being put into practice is at the British Nuclear Fuels plant in Sellafield, Cumbria. Bob Stone’s research centre in Salford, Manchester – the Advanced Robotics Research Centre – has supplied the nuclear plant with a working prototype of a remote-controlled robot, which Sellafield is testing as a potential vehicle for remote maintenance of hazardous environments. Stone keenly subscribes to the view that researchers must stop prancing around in the lab and concentrate on getting the technology out into the real world. Another illustration of virtual reality in use in the real world today is an education project being run by West Denton High School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (CI No 1,863). Here, with the full approval of modern-minded headmaster Michael Clark, pupils are working with designers to develop educational virtual reality environments, such as the Dangerous Workplace and the Information City. The former is a virtual factory, where pupils can move around the floor, operating cranes and heavy industrial machinery – if a virtual machine is switched on without the safety guard being down, it won’t work, and if general safety precautions aren’t taken, the pupil could experience a nasty virtual accident.
By Sue Norris
If Bob Stone had his way, there would be many more cases like this, where virtual reality is placed in the hands of the people that will actually drive the market. Although many ideas exist as to the sorts of applications it would do well for – such as interactive training and architectural modelling – a real bumper need for virtual reality has not yet been discovered. (The same is still very true of multimedia). That’s not to say that there isn’t a need, but rather that the technology is still at an exploratory stage. It has been said
by several researchers that virtual reality is limited only by the human imagination; there are many millions of things that it could do potentially – the problem is that we don’t understand what they are yet and we never will until can break away from trying to re-create the reality that we know. To give an illustration of just how extraordinary the concept of virtual reality actually is, West Denton High School’s Michael Clark says that in the design of the Dangerous Workplace a virtual crane went through a virtual wall and no-one has seen it since! Back with the Salford-based ARRC, Bob Stone – speaking at Virtual Reality ’92 at Kensington Olympia in London recently – says he is actually disappointed with the progress his team has made over the year since the UK exhibition’s debut a year ago. Too much time has had to be spent involved in trouble-shooting, thanks to delayed and inadequate equipment. The centre’s government grant is due to expire in December, and Stone is concerned that the prototypes it is required to develop by then won’t be ready. He didn’t sound too discouraged though, and was quick to issue assurances that his research team will still be around next year, albeit most likely under a different guise. He spoke at large about the various telepresence research projects he knows of or is involved in one being the Eva Retriever robot, which is designed to retrieve stray astronauts that have gone spinning off into orbit! NASA Ames Labs is apparently experimenting with this type of cruise separation application. The ARRC uses equipment from various manufacturers, including Bristol-based Division Ltd and Aldermaston, Berkshire-based Dimension International Ltd. A prototype software package developed using Dimension’s VR Toolkit, demonstrated at the London conference, is a three-dimensional virtual reality representation of the whole research centre at Salford. It does not require user-immersion and it is extremely impressive – the graphics are very clearly detailed. The user can explore anywhere inside or outside the building, and can actually play with the robots and computers in the building. If you go up to the Sun SparcStation centre, you can type on the machines and the words come up on the station’s virtual screen; you switch a virtual robot on and it does what it is programmed to do. So, sitting in the Olympia conference hall, the audience was given a full guided tour of the ARRC. The software took only four weeks to design, and involved one of the researchers going round the centre with a tape measure and sonic depth detector. The researchers say they found Dimension’s toolkit very easy to use, but note that the package needs to be used as a front end to AutoCAD if it is to appeal to investors.
For immersive virtual reality, the ARRC uses systems from Division Ltd’s Vision range of parallel engines – the centre is about to take delivery of a SuperVision system containing four Intel 80860 processors. SuperVision features a scalable communications architecture called a High Speed Link transporting data at 200Mbps – which has been designed to support parallel vision applications of the sort required by the ARRC. Division, Dimension and W Industries Ltd of Leicester have become well known and well respected names across the waters, where the UK is perceived as being highly innovative in the field of virtual reality, despite a scarcity of funding. In addition to the research groups and commercial partipants, there now exists a Virtual Reality User Group in South East London. And Virtual Presence Ltd is a consultancy spin-off in central London, dedicated to distributing hardware and software products and peripherals to universities and defence organisations. These developments are surely proof that virtual reality is to be taken seriously, even if some of the press hype does have to be taken with a pinch of salt.