Simulation machines and Virtual Reality.
L-____- .- . _ __ __ __ 62 The List 19 April — 2 May 1991
As technology to mimic live experiences becomes increasingly sophisticated, Sue Wilson goes for a spin on a leisure simulator and looks into the hallucinogenic world of Virtual Reality.
It is now possible to ski down a mountainside. drive a rally car at over lOOmph. fly a helicopter. ride in the TI" race and go white-water canoeing. all in the West End of Glasgow. all in the space of five minutes. Well. sort of. The new Super-X simulator at Glasgow Museum ofTransport gives you a convincing and thoroughly enjoyable impression ofdoing all these things. without the risk ofa broken neck or a multiple pile-up. From the outside. the Super-X in action looks like a Ford Transit without wheels. bucking about like one of those electronic bulls the women used to ride at rodeos in Dallas; inside it‘s like a very small cinema. with room for about twelve people. a cinema that moves in synch with the film. You can feel yourself hurtling down the snowy slope you see on the screen. your stomach lurches as you hit a dip; driving the rally car you feel the bumps. swerves and surges of acceleration. even the change in motion as you switch gears.
The Super-X consists of a van-shaped body mounted on a complex three-axis hydraulic system. which is connected through a computer to the images on the screen. The technology involved is the same as in ﬂight simulators used to train pilots and astronauts. The combination ofclose-up visuals and detailed reproduction of the corresponding movement fools the gullible bits of your brain into believing that what you see and feel is really happening. so to a large extent you respond as though it is. It’s surprisingly realistic. considering you‘re surrounded by ten other people. all shrieking and gasping. and you know perfectly well you‘re not in a canoe shooting the rapids. and it's a lot of fun. So far. the new attraction is proving extremely popular: since it opened on Good Friday well over 7000 people have experienced simulated reality; I saw one wee girl emerging delightedly from her fifth go that day.
If you visit the Museum ofTransport in the year 2000. you may well find they‘ve traded in the Super-X for a 'Virtual Reality' system. This concept. currently the focus ofintensive research. is along the same lines as event simulation. just a few quantum leaps further up the road. Just to warn you. virtual reality has been described by one researcher as ‘electronic LSD‘. and it's similarly mind-bending stuffto read about.
To enter this new dimension you need a pair of goggles with tiny video screens for lenses. and a Lycra glove incorporating a network of fibre-optic
sensors which pick up the movements of your hand. Goggles and glove link up to two powerful computers. which send images to the mini-screens — the visual aspect of your virtual world. That world is designed beforehand with a fairly standard graphics programme. and can be anything you like — a tropical beach. 12th century Timbuktoo. the moons oflupiter— the possibilities extend as far as your imagination. The goggles create the illusion that you are actually in this world; they give a stereoscopic. three-dimensional. all-round view which changes as you move. thanks to a magnetic tracking mechanism which responds to changes in the wearer's position: a virtual room stays still as you turn and look all the way around it.
The gloves’s sensors enable you to see your virtual hand. through which you interact with your virtual world. pick up virtual objects: ‘tactile feedback‘ mechanisms in the glove reproduce the sensations oftouch. Currently under development is an all-over ‘Datasuit‘. laced with fibre-optics. which projects an image of the whole body into electronic space. or ‘cyberspace‘ as it's known. As with the Super-X simulator. the illusion is aided by the brain‘s eagerness to believe that what it perceives is real (‘Real‘ is set to become an extremely relative notion). Just to make it that extra bit weirder. you can enter cyberspace as something other than yourself; a cat perhaps. or a candle flame.
Your friends can join in. too — they just hook up to the same system and you all experience the same virtual reality together. like a collaborative lucid dream. Distance is no object — in the US. architects in Houston and San Francisco drew up joint plans for a nursery centre without ever meeting. then tested their design by shrinking their virtual body sizes to those ofchildren and playing together in the virtual space.
‘You might very well be a mountain range or a galaxy or a pebble on the floor. Or a piano. . . I’ve considered being a piano. You could become a comet in the sky one moment and then gradually unfold into a spider bigger than the planet that looks down on all your friends from high above.‘ So says Jaron Lanier. a 30-year-old. dreadlocked. high school drop-out .iwho runs a company in
California (where else) which is leading the field in developing this extraordinary new technology. which he believes could ultimately transform the way we experience the world. enabling us to live out our wildest dreams and share other people‘s. Virtual reality blurs the line between fact and fiction until they are barely distinguishable. What will philosophers who cannot agree on whether a real table really exists make ofa virtual table? The major toy manufacturers investing in the research take a more pragmatic line. regarding it as the ultimate video game. Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno are experimenting with ways of incorporating it into their live shows. The US Air Force use the technology to train pilots who fight virtual air battles. NASA is working on a system whereby a technician at (‘ape (‘anaveral can repair an unmanned spaceship on its way to Venus. Doctors will soon be able to send their tniniaturised virtual bodies through the organs and arteries ol‘patients. projected from actual total body scans. Fascinating and fantastical though the concept is. some doubts surface. Given the current state of the world. can the vast research budgets be justified. especially when some people suspect the technology will merely provide the rich with a Utopian escape route from the nasty bits of real reality"? Could it get in the way of more traditional kinds ofsocial change. as people abandon the hard. slow nitty-gritty ofpolitics and campaigns for the easy delights of cyberspace? According to
Lanier. ‘the most vivid experience ofvirtual reality , is the experience ofleaving it . . . one ofthe biggest ‘
gifts virtual reality gives us is a renewed appreciation ofphysical reality.’ Are there not. perhaps. simpler ways ofachieving that’.’ Having said that. ifthey do instal one in the Museum of Transport in my lifetime I‘ll definitely be in the queue to give it a shot.
Museum of Transport. 1 Bun/louse Road , Glasgow. 3573929. Mon—Wed, Fri. Sat 10am—5pm; Thurs 10am—9pm; Sun noon—6pm. A dmission free to the museum; the Super-X simulator costs [I .50 I 75 p ).
Virtual reality equipment is expected to go on the market some time during the nextfew years. Datasuits current/v start at around 5200. 000.