May 19, 2013
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Spring 1994 Vol. 3 No. 1
Virtual Reality: Ready or Not!
By Joan E. Lewis
Looking for a technological star for education to wish upon? A new one is rising, and its applications by government, commerce, and education are already virtually real.
It's like snorkeling on a colorful reef in the Caribbean. With a clear mask and breathing tube in place, you slide your face into the water and simultaneously slip your senses into the underwater world. The moment you do, you become aware of only the stunning undersea landscape and its colorful inhabitants. The above-surface world switches off like a light.
It won't be long before you, too, can experience true virtual realitymaybe even virtual snorkelingat entertainment places, at local businesses, or in your own home. And sooner than you think, virtual reality promises to be an integral part of the schoolroom. Virtual reality, VR, is the ultimate human computer interface, and its rapid ascent is being fueled by warm wishes, hot interest, and lots of cold cash.
Interest in VR is widespread. At least 200 research groups in 17 countries are working on some aspect of it. In the United States, many companies, both large and small, are scrambling to establish VR-based enterprises. A growing number of independents, CEOs, venture capitalists, and government agencies are sliding out VR-tagged dollars with the studied coolness of gamblers confident they've been tipped to a sure thing. And several major universities have been conducting VR research in various areas, including architecture, biotechnology, medicine, and education.
Birth and Growth
VR technology was born under government auspices, and for years, most VR spending and research was military based. For example, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research cosponsored development of the first head-mounted display (HMD) in the late 1960s.
But things have changed. Today, nongovernment VR research and development is established and growing steadily. How much money is involved is difficult to estimate, but it's huge. John Latta, president of the market research firm 4th Wave, projects that nongovernment entities around the world, which spent $91.5 million on VR research in 1993, will quadruple their expenditures by 1997. And Latta's figures exclude not only government research dollars but also the tens of millions spent each year by members of the public playing at VR entertainment concessions.
The U.S. government's continuing interest in the potential of VR is evidenced in part by the establishment in February 1993 of a VR committee within the National Research Council (NRC). According to Anne Mavor, NRC's study director, the committee has a broad sponsorship of about 10 government agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The committee, charged with researching priorities in VR research and development, is preparing a report that will recommend a national agenda for VR. The committee is heavily interdisciplinary, says Mavor, and will try to come up with a consensus for the report that will well represent a broad range of concerns.*
(* The report is due out in August 1994 and will be available from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Box 285 Washington, DC 20055; or call 800-824-6242.)
What is VR, really?
The technology causing the stir has been called the next best thing to being there. Virtual reality envelops users in a computer generated world. If the term computer triggers visions of passive watching for you, you're just not getting the VR picture. Using VR is not like merely looking at graphic simulations on a screen it's more like jumping into the screenand becoming part of the action.
That is, some kinds of VR are like that. Unlike certain terms on labelsfat free, for examplethat carry government-determined product requirements, the term virtual reality carries no limits of use. But it is a hot market term that is being used for a growing number of disparate products, programs, and activities. For instance, both the creation of imaginary worlds in the minds of people receiving text descriptions of those worlds on the Internet (called MUDs, for Multi-User Dungeons) and the viewing and manipulating of animated graphics on a computer screen are called VR.
Because this free-hand application of the term makes VR a slippery concept to nail down, even the most casual discussion about it demands a definition. Unless otherwise specified, in this article, VR is what many call true VR. It refers only to technology that has the ability both to immerse the user in an artificial world and to allow interactive navigation within that world. If you have ever snorkeled over a coral reef, you have a good visual simile for the VR characteristic of total immersion.
It is interactive navigation that is VR's most captivating characteristic. When you, the VR cybernaut, turn your head, you see a different view, much as you do in the real world. If you approach an object, you see more of it. If you go behind the object, you see the back of it. If you pick up an object, it moves with your hand. If you drop a ball, it bounces. If you drop a glass, it shatters. If you shoot a pterodactyl, it screams and dies.
But there's still more to defining true VR. At least two major technology systems can achieve the characteristics of total immersion and interactive navigation. One system is the tethered HMD, which, although somewhat inhibiting, does a great job of blocking out the real world. The other is a room-like VR system that surrounds an individual or group (wearing special glasses) on three sides and overhead with multiple large-screen projection displays. The Cave at the University of Illinois-Chicago is an example of this type of system. It uses three-dimensional images to model fractal mathematics, biochemical mapping, and brain structures for participants.
To put VR's potential in time perspective, it is important to separate what's here now from what might be coming. The VR of the future promises to send us through time and space on exciting, enlightening, even perilous adventures, all within the safety of our VR-equipped room. When the predicted VR of the future is in place, we might slip into the crowd at the Colosseum in ancient Rome and hear the roar as we vote thumbs up or down, or we might stroll on the moon in the floating, bounding steps that its low gravity allows. Someday through VR, we might get the feel of a new career or keep abreast of current affairs by surveying world events up close. We might do all these things someday.
But not now, and not soon. That level of technology isn't here yet. There are no specific predictions of when VR technology will catch up with its hype, but engineer David Homan of NASA's Automation and Robotics Division offers this analogy: If you compare the development of VR technology to the history of flight, we are presently at the Wright flyer heading toward the Concorde.
So what's VR like at the Wright brothers' level? Many experimental programs are being tried by the government. Notable examples are NASA's use of a virtual simulator to train astronauts and its use of virtual prototypes of the Hubble Space Telescope and Costar (Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement)the corrective optical instrument package created to fix Hubble. The virtual Hubble and Costar were used to rehearse the corrective procedures and test Costar's design before the actual hardware was built (see photo). During this virtual rehearsal, two important Costar design problems were discovered and corrected before the actual hardware was launched.
VR prototypes are appearing more and more in various fields, prominently in the area of computer-aided design (architecture and auto design, for example). However, most people's exposure to VR at present is through the entertainment industry. Many cities have either permanent or traveling VR arcade games.
The graphics of this virtual game world, which is perceived within the HMD that the player wears, are crude by today's standards. In the distant future, VR graphics may be indistinguishable from real-life people and objects, but for now, VR worlds are basically cartoon worlds. You move yourself about the computer-generated virtual environment by pointing a finger or pushing a button on a joystick. Surprisingly, these unreal factors do not overshadow the feeling that you are actually inside this interactive, three-dimensional other world. The experience may not seem real, but it is awesome.
There are several VR market potentials. Home entertainment is certainly prime. 4th Wave's Latta predicts that entertainment ventures will account for 76 percent of VR-generated revenues through 1997, but serious VR applications are emerging, too. Education, in its broad sense, is one of these.
An interesting classroom application is being tested at the University of Houston-Downtown. R. Bowen Loftin, a physicist who divides his time between the university and his work at NASA where he develops VR environments for training purposes, has developed a Virtual Physics Laboratory for students. In the VR lab, students can conduct physics experiments with the non-real world ability to control friction and drag (see photo).
Much of early VR technology grew out of educational needs. Flight simulators to teach flying skills safely are a significant part of VR's roots and continue to be a major focus of VR research. Systems that teach flight, navigation on water, and emergency procedures in nuclear power plants are examples of some of the VR simulation systems currently under development.
Health care and medical training are also areas of education based VR development. Some partnerships of commercial companies and universities are developing VR simulations to train surgeons. When these simulations are perfected, surgeon interns will be able to perform an operation over and over until they get it right. And their VR patients will respond physiologically like live human patients, but they will never complain, never sue for malpractice, and, of course, never (really) die.
It is not difficult to think of lower-level versions of these VR applications. If VR flight simulators can be used to train pilots, then VR driving simulators can be used to train teenagers to drive. If interns can operate on virtual patients, then kids can dissect virtual frogs. The education possibilities seem unlimited.
Peter Cornwell, president of Division Incorporated in the United States and Division Limited in Britainproviders of high-level VR software and ready-to-run VR systemsfeels that VR has great potential in education. Cornwell explains that in addition to offering cheap, safe alternatives to learning tasks (such as flight training) that involve high cost or serious hazards, VR will have a lot of impact in the conventional areas of education, as well. He thinks several things will make VR attractive to educators, not the least of which is the compelling technology. People like to use it, Cornwell says. Kids will be motivated to learn a variety of things in a VR environment simply because they will like being there.
Are educators interested in VR? Yes, very, says the University of Houston's Loftin. I have spoken to about a thousand teachers at all levels and, almost uniformly, they have been excited by the potential of VR technology. Most are very enthusiastic.
Cynthia A. Elliott, manager of product development and distribution at Miami Dade Community College in Florida, is a VR enthusiast interested in furthering its position in education. Elliott says that at the large universities, they are actually doing research on educational applications of VR, but we at the community college level are just at the talking stagea stage Elliott seems eager to move past. She sees medical applications and the whole area of allied sciences as holding the biggest potential for educational VR applications, right now. But she also sees potential for teaching career training, English as a second language, and basic skills. Elliott says interest is high, but securing the funding for projects is a real problem.
Keith Zook, technology coordinator for Grosse Township, Michigan, and a member of the National Education Association's special committee on telecommunications, has a less enthusiastic view of VR. When I graduated from college, Zook says, TV was going to be the savior of education; it was going to replace teachers. That didn't happen. I don't see VR doing it, either. VR is just going to be one more tool. If it does a better job, teachers will clamor for it. If it doesn't, they won't. I don't see VR crowding out other methods.
NASA's Homan, viewing VR education applications from a space training perspective, also sees VR's near future as becoming one component of a training package, not total replacement of other methods. VR will be best for teaching some aspects of a program. Other aspects will be better conveyed by other technology, Homan says. I don't see us abandoning one teaching technology for the other.
Among those who use the term VR in its broader sensethat is, without immersion and navigation capabilitiesis Roger Ray, professor of psychology and director of the Institute of Educational Technology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Ray has developed what he labels a VR program using interactive two-dimensional video to conduct experiments in animal learning. In his prototype, the experimenter views a video of an experimental rat and inputs decisions about training the rat into the computer. The decisions made influence the next rat behaviors shown and ultimately determine the video'sand thus the experiment'soutcome. Ray thinks that this non-immersive technology has a much rosier future in education than does true VR, which he feels is too costly to be widely used and offers fewer natural marriages to content.
Mitchel Resnick, a professor at MIT's Media Lab who specializes in technology in education, also sees room for more than true VR under the VR label. Resnick is experimenting with MUDs in which computer network users create imaginary worlds with words, rather than HMDs. He offers this caution about true VR: If serious education efforts are going to be made in this area, people better think more about creating kits that allow kids to build VR environments and less about building VR environments for kids to visit. The real educational benefit of VR will come in the building of the artificial environments, not in the manipulation of an environment built by a teacher.
On the other hand, Gary Watts, senior director of the National Education Association's National Center for Innovation, has reservations about a kid-first approach to implementing VR. We need to avoid the mistakes we made with computers, cautions Watts. Computers are still not well integrated into the schools because of strategic mistakes we made. The main one was thinking that computers were for kids first, not for teachers first. We thought we could jump over the teachers and go right to the kids. It didn't work. The truth is, you can't integrate any technology into the schools when the teachers don't know and understand what that technology is. If VR or any new technology is going to work in the schools, we need to give it to the teachers first, for use by themnot by the kids.
To educators who must untangle various views and issues, Jim Shuck, director of commercial business development at Kaiser Electro-Optics Incorporateda company that has recently made a foray into the commercial VR market after 10 years of applying its VR technology to strictly military applicationsoffers this advice: VR is coming, and it's going to change everyone's life. It's going to change society. I urge educators to prepare for it now, while there's time.
Loftin is of the same mind as Shuck. I am very much of the attitude that VR is something that will happen, regardless of anyone's opinion, he says. He also feels that inappropriate uses of VR, some in education, are probable. I can't stop that, but I will deplore it. And I will do what I can to push VR along in the right direction.
Loftin and Christopher Dede, director of the Center for Interactive Educational Technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, recently were awarded a million-dollar NSF grant to explore where VR fits and does not fit in education. This funding should enable them to take future VR applications in education a giant step in the right direction.
According to NSF program director Nora Sebelli, Loftin and Dede's grant is the first or one of the first major NSF grants awarded to study the potential of VR in education. But NSF is also awarding small grants (under $50,000) to address the same topic. Sebelli says, From these small grants, presently going mostly to people who already have access to the technology, we may find promising ideas that might be worthy of further exploration in a full proposal.
In spite of all the activity, education is not yet a lucrative market for true VR. The costs are just too high, and the applications aren't available yet. When will VR applications and systems be ready and within the price range for homes and schools? Latta, Loftin, and Shuck agree: Five years. Peter Cornwell predicts a shorter time of three to four years.
VR's arrival seems inescapable, and it has the potential to change drastically the way we do business, relative to one another, and learn. From an educator's perspective, VR holds one certainty: The light from this rising star of technology is going to fall on education before the year 2000. Whether it illuminates or blinds depends on how well educators prepare for its coming.
If education leaders do not explore VR, test its effectiveness, find its hazards, and take actions to shape its role in education to meet education's objectives, that role will be shaped to accomodate the personal objectives of the entertainment industry, VR vendors, and bandwagon opportunists. They'll be knocking at the door. And each time someone knocks, educatorsready or notwill have to decide whether to set out the welcome mat or bolt the door.
There is still time, but precious little to spare.
Photos courtesy of NASA's Automation & Robotics Division and R. Bowen Loftin.
Joan Lewis is a free-lance writer and independent educational program developer who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. Lewis's And They're Off! The Race to Fiber Optics was published in the Spring 1993 issue of TECHNOS.
Click here to access Virtual Reality Lexicon and Litmus Test Sidebar that accompanied this article.