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Monday, November 5, 2001

Reality that actually is virtual      ILLUSRTRATIONS BY GAURAV SOOD
Sonal Chawla

ARTIFICIAL reality, synthetic environments, artificial environments, cyberspace or information design are the other names for the single term Virtual Reality (VR). The term, which is composed of two words, virtual and reality, involves the use of technologies to create a virtual 3-D world for the user creating an impression of the real world for him. The user can look around and move around in the artificial worlds just as he would in the real one. Aircraft pilots are increasingly utilising the concept of VR during their training in flight simulators that looks like a cockpit of an airplane with all relevant gadgets and switches. An even shaped high-resolution screen replaces the front windshield of the cockpit. The screen displays different image sequences, the same as what a pilot sees from the cockpit windshield during landing, take off or a smooth glide giving the trainee a real feel of flying actually. This is VR. To a trainee, the environment inside the simulated or virtual cockpit is a real one.


Though no one actually knows when actually serious work on VR started yet a major breakthrough came when Apple in 1984 pioneered the first widely used input device that is the mouse. This provided communication between the user and the computer when the user could tell a computer what to do by selecting the desired activity. These mouse-driven programs that provide onscreen graphics are referred to as GUI (Graphical User Interface). This interface allows communication between the user and the computer. This GUI employs three concepts of visual reality. It allows navigation abilities (two-dimensional) to the user, manipulation of objects and application of pictures. Later, in 1965, Ivan Sutherland invented a piece of equipment, a head-mounted display that allowed for pictures to be placed in front of the eyes. Then in 1969, Myron Krueger designed a responsive environment called Glowflow. This artificial environment would respond to a person’s weight by changing the pictures on the walls.

The B.I.O.-Bug, equipped with artificial intelligence, is a new robotic toy that will be available for Christmas. The toy, which retailers are likely to price for about $35 to $40, is made by WowWee, a division of Hasbro,Inc.
The B.I.O.-Bug, equipped with artificial intelligence, is a new robotic toy that will be available for Christmas. The toy, which retailers are likely to price for about $35 to $40, is made by WowWee, a division of Hasbro,Inc.

Each of these advancements played a part in the birth of virtual reality. Without one, the other couldn’t have occurred. Even without the ultimate vision of virtual reality each improvement brought us closer to where we are today.

Virtual Reality is basically composed of six components and six ingredients. The ingredients refer to the technology inputs needed for the Virtual Reality system. They have been depicted in the accompanying diagram.

Various methodologies and the components that integrate to form a VR system are:

  • Computer graphics: It produces a desired visual effect to create a synthetic environment.

  • Simulation and situation training: It is actually the imitative representation of the functioning of one system by means of another. Flight simulator is one such real life example.

  • Synthetic environments, virtual objects: It is creating software and man-machine interfaces that serve the specific purpose of an environment. For example, the program manager of MS Windows is the virtual desktop to the user as it provides utilities of notepad, file management etc.

  • Real time interactive 3D and sensory feedback: It is the mutual and reciprocal action or influence visualised in real time. For example, a 3D animated display of a functional human heart is a great training kit for the cardiac surgeon who can practice operation on this synthetic image of the heart using data gloves.

  • Communication: The essential requirement of the Virtual Reality system is to establish a communication link between different interfaces integrated together. It includes video, audio signals etc.

  • Realism: The key objective of a Virtual Reality system is to simulate reality. The more the effects are real; the better is the acceptability of the system.

Since VR allows for the ‘what-if’ scenarios, it finds potential applications in a number of fields like architecture where the clients can walk through the room and find possible answers to the questions like ‘what if the staircase were a little wider’ or ‘what if the room were a bit larger.’

Chemists find it a boon as now they can see how well molecules fit together and how they react to one another. Vehicular marketing can utilise a VR system for allowing their customers to test drive a virtual car for instance. Military sector benefits from VR when it demonstrates the use of new equipment in addition to simulating battle scenarios. The possibilities are endless and can be put to use in any field be it education (teaching aids), surgery (training, preplanning), tourism, diagnostics, rehabilitation and entertainment.

The major hurdle in the popularity of VR is the lack of an impressive market size. Consequently, there are not many market leaders, no standards as such and very few emphatic applications.