The Futurist on VR
reality is getting real: Prepare to meet your clone.
By: John C. Briggs
Virtual reality is not yet an everyday reality, but in the next 10 to 20
gears, VR experiences will be fully integrated into reel life. We'll
"attend" meetings, practice surgical techniques, travel to exotic places,
test design flaws before building things, and create digital clones to be
our representatives in virtual worlds.
Virtual reality is advancing rapidly, though almost unnoticed. VR is
beginning to be used extensively in avatar creation, assistive
technologies, communications, design, engineering, entertainment,
medicine, and many other fields. In both the near-term and longer-term
future, it will be used even more extensively and in sometimes surprising
In 1996, VR was being overhyped, and many of us were forced to caution
readers to keep a sense of perspective. Many people, including VR
practitioners, took that advice. Virtual reality, or at least the term,
went into hiding.
"Virtual reality went underground," says VR expert and developer Bill
Coyle of visualpark.net. "Even software vendors pulled the plug." Two of
VR's key magazines, VR World and VR Special Report, folded.
Coyle believes the term VR will soon come back into vogue, but clearly we
need a reality check on virtual reality.
What Is VR?
Virtual reality is best defined as a computer-generated 3-D experience in
which a user can navigate around, interact with, and be immersed in
another environment or world in real time, or "at the speed of life." VR
exists parallel to our everyday world.
Multisensory experiences are potentially a characteristic of VR, but that
is not necessarily true today. Much of VR now is only visual. Some VR
developers add an audio component to their work; VR expert Brenda Laurel
reports that when audio is added to video in VR the video seems more real
and vibrant. Some developers are also working on our senses of smell and
touch, but their work is quite preliminary. These senses are much harder
to mimic and refresh than the visual and auditory. I don't know of anyone
who is trying to build a sense of taste into VR. However, in the future,
as the technology progresses, multisensory dimensions may be viewed as
necessary for VR.
VR's Other Dimensions
Within about five years you should be able to run slick, consumer-
oriented VR on your desktop computer and advanced VR applications on
office workstations; tomorrow's supercomputers should be able to do
incredible things to enhance the VR experience.
In the longer-term future (10 to 20 years), you should be able to
experience advanced VR from the comfort of your home, with much of it
coming to you over the Internet or whatever supersedes it. VR should
become an integral part of business, substituting virtual trips for
"real" travel to attend meetings, create products, or conduct
VR on the Internet has come along slowly. The problem seems not to be the
speed of the Internet backbone or its capabilities, but the bandwidth of
the last mile to your house. Forget about standard Internet service, DSL,
cable, or even faster lines to provide the bandwidth you need. Except for
the fastest connections (like OC3) of the Internet2 used by major
research universities, they're just not fast enough to handle the data
needed to transmit high-quality VR. However, it is anticipated that this
problem will be solved in the next few years as fiberoptic cable or other
fast transmission media reach our houses and businesses. These obstacles
appear to be more economic than technological.
VR will also affect communications. Even defining ordinary words becomes
a problem as VR mimics the real world. One of my clients started talking
about using puppets for a product demonstration. I assumed she was
talking about virtual puppets, common in VR. She was actually talking
about real, physical puppets. And when you are talking about your office,
your files, or your desktop, already you must distinguish between the
office that your computer is in and the "office" that is in your
VR may create a number of identity crises, says Sherry Turkle, a
professor of the sociology of science at MIT. The anonymity of Internet
VR makes it easy (and fun for some people) to create different personae.
If you're a man, you may want to express your female side; for example,
inventor Ray Kurzweil's female persona is "Ramona," a virtual musician
and performer. Meet her, hear her story, and see/hear her perform at
www.kurzweilai.net. Your VR presence, represented by an avatar, could be
totally different from your everyday appearance.
VR will allow you to try out and learn different things, virtually, both
positive and negative. You can perhaps enrich your life by experiencing
different worlds and conducting explorations within them. On the other
hand, you could indulge various perversions that may be carried over into
real life. We've already seen these potentialities on the Internet. VR
will extend that power to incredible levels. Cybersex, escapism into
fantasy worlds, and online addictions are all very likely as VR becomes
more sophisticated and widespread.
VR will greatly extend the capabilities of the Internet and other
communication, educational, entertainment, and work-related media. As
with any new technology (think of the book, film, telephone, or TV)
results can be either positive or negative. Today, you can seek out porno
books or films, make an obscene phone call, or watch extreme violence on
TV, but you can also enjoy these media for positive and enriching
purposes. VR is the same. You choose.
Finally, VR use has been growing rapidly. CyberEdge, a research and
marketing firm, estimates that VR had a $24 billion market in
architecture, engineering, medicine, and other visualization applications
in 2000 (contracting to $22 billion in 2001 "under worldwide economic
pressure"). Daratech, an engineering technology research firm, estimates
that the market for virtual prototyping and simulation in engineering
topped $1.3 billion in 2001, a growth of more than 19% from 2000.
The following are just a few of the world-changing applications in
virtual reality's future.
Avatars: Your Proxy In Cyberspace
Avatars are electronic images serving as representatives of people in
virtual reality. With them, you may appear as yourself, another person,
an animal, or almost any entity you choose. Avatars may have the largest
impact of any VR application; they will represent us and other people (or
entities) in virtual worlds.
One present "world provider" on the Internet allows users to choose
avatars to represent themselves in its worlds. You may appear as a cat,
fish, horse, another animal, or even a range of diverse humans. As you
move around your chosen world, you are able to see avatars representing
other people and interact with them.
Boston-based LifeFX (www.lifefx.com) will allow you to choose an avatar
to deliver your e-mail with video and audio rather than text. At this
point it isn't e-mail anymore. They call it facemail or Stand-In. At
present, they offer you stock, off-the-shelf avatars, but soon they
expect to offer customized, personalized avatars. If you send them a
videotape of yourself and a voice recording, they will turn them into
your very own "talking-head" avatar to use for sending facemail on the
Internet. Within several years, expect everyone to use facemail on the
Internet when it is more useful than sending text e-mails.
Avatars now also serve as hosts on some Web sites. Provided by Boston-
based Artificial Life and used by more than 20 companies, these "bots,"
or virtual robots, combine artificial intelligence, natural language
processing, and VR in the form of an attractive avatar (svelte, brunette
Christine Eaglestar is one) to answer your questions and solve your
problems. Some companies using these artificially intelligent avatars say
that customers share more with bots than they do with human customer
service representatives or other electronic systems.
Avatars can also serve as virtual news anchors, like Ananova
(ananova.com) on Internet news shows. Mya, a virtual actress, appears in
a Motorola ad. Reportedly the first version of Mya was so real that
Motorola's ad agency asked that she appear less real.
Expect to see many avatars and bots on the Internet in your future.
You'll be able to choose or create an avatar not only to deliver your
facemail, but also to represent you in chat rooms (or "chat worlds").
Beyond sending text e-mail or facemail, VR will allow you to send VR
worlds. While text e-mails are good for quick messages and facemail adds
a personal touch, it will sometimes be best to convey concepts, ideas,
and experiences by sending a world on the Web. Virtual worlds are rich,
information-full environments that may take you a good deal of time to
create and then distribute. Look for software companies to offer "world
processing" software for creating and sending these virtual environments.
One site, visualpark.net/protect, is a step toward using a world to
convey information rather than a standard Web page. To use the site, you
have to click around to get the information you need. According to site
creator Bill Coyle, "Older or inexperienced users just don't get it. They
expect to be led through the site in a linear fashion. Younger people
explore the site as a world and have enlightening fun. During 2002 we
will incorporate full VR and have a collection of worlds to explore."
The consortium developing Internet2, led by VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, is
building a networked VR communication system that will make it possible
for users to feel as if they are in the same room as a person across the
country or on the other side of the world. Among the many challenges for
tele-immersion is to use high bandwidth to project users in 3-D and in
real time from at least two, if not three or more, distant locations. The
result will be a virtual videoconference that looks and feels more like a
To create this illusion, they use at least seven cameras, with graphics
algorithms to produce a 3-D image of the people you are communicating
with on a surround screen. Potential applications include virtual
business meetings, training sessions, concurrent engineering reviews,
professional consultations, and much more.
The costs and complexity of teleimmersion are still stumbling blocks;
we'll have to wait about five years to use tele-immersion in our work,
and perhaps 10 years or more to use it as consumers. But it's coming and
will have a big impact on both work and play.
Virtual Design and Engineering
Computers have long been embraced as important design tools, as designers
and engineers move fluidly from 2-D computer-aided design (CAD) to 3-D
CAD and finally to VR. Engineering market researcher Daratech estimated
the virtual prototyping and visualization market at $1.3 billion in 2001,
but the CAD market at $5.3 billion. VR is the natural progression from
CAD, so there's a sizable new market for design and engineering VR.
Engineers now use VR on desktop computers, workstations, "work walls,"
surround screens, and "CAVEs," the CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment
developed at University of Illinois's Electronic Visualization
Laboratory. These virtual environments surround users with 3-D images.
General Motors is using VR extensively in the design and review process,
mocking up a product on workstations, transferring it to a work wall for
initial review, and finally doing a full demo in a CAVE. GM's engineers
claim that they can review and modify three designs in the time it used
to take to do one, and they discover potential problems before designs
are turned into expensive physical prototypes.
In the future, it will make no sense not to use VR in every design and
engineering process to simulate products before they are made. Proposed
designs will be sent around the world on the Internet (or Internet2) for
review and modification at different sites before production begins.
VR has already benefited people with disabilities through architectural
accessibility studies, assessing wheelchair access, training in
wheelchair use, virtual tours of community attractions, and the like. New
VR applications are continuously being developed and applied in the
VR can help people with disabilities live fuller lives with greater
independence. A key concept in this field, developed by former NorthLight
Technologies CEO Tom Murphy, is to fill gaps between a person's
capabilities and what the environment requires. VR is both a tool to
assess these gaps and a way to fill some of them.
In the future, it will be standard procedure, if not mandatory, to use VR
in testing buildings, homes, and public places for accessibility before
plans are approved. Control of home, work, and other environments will be
mediated through computers. Using VR interfaces, those with limited
mobility will be able to control their environments, opening and closing
windows and blinds, controlling appliances and entertainment systems,
opening and closing doors, and using lights.
VR-enhanced communications will allow those with restricted mobility,
confined to their homes, to interact more fully and humanly with the
outside world. Because they will use avatars and augmented and assistive
technologies on the Internet, they need not reveal to anyone that they
have a disability. People with learning disabilities will be able to
share their experiences, feelings, and knowledge using communications
assistance and augmentation. Education and training can be expedited
through VR and connections to the Net. Various kinds of employment will
be possible through VR. People with physical disabilities could even work
in a factory with augmented and assistive equipment.
Entertainment in Virtual Worlds
VR's entertainment applications range from advanced video games to movies
to whole worlds.
Most of what we call video games today are essentially VR games. Their 3-
D visualization is usually quite good, and they are immersive (just try
to pry my eyes from the screen), interactive (how fast are your
fingers?), and in real time (just try to keep up). While using fewer
picture elements or polygons (collections of triangles in 3-D space) than
powerful VR computers, video games are dedicated enough to their graphics
tasks to provide a satisfactory experience. In fact, the graphics
processors in your video game player may be more powerful than those in
your desktop PC. As the Internet becomes fast enough and has enough VR
offerings, expect more and more VR video gaming to be played on the
Movies have yet to become true virtual realities, though they now use all
kinds of VR tricks in production, as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
(2001) did: wire-frame designs, layering, digital imaging, motion
capture, and collision detection.
But Final Fantasy was not interactive and it was not created for the user
in real time.
At some point, movies will be created that meet our criteria for being
VR, perhaps as artistic experiments. These movies will be 3-D, immersive,
interactive, and respond to viewers in real time. It will be a real
experience as you become part of the movie's action around you and
influence plot twists with your actions. You may also interact with the
movie in a network of other viewers/actors. You won't just sit back and
watch, but act and interact, becoming part of the action yourself. At
first this will only be possible in special theaters, but as bandwidth
increases, you will either experience the movie over the Internet or
download it for later participation.
Like VR movies, VR worlds may be offered for live enjoyment on the
Internet or downloaded for later exploration. These worlds will offer
virtual experiences for entertainment, education, enlightenment, or
excitement. Your choices of experience may range from a religious story
to pornography and everything in-between. On the Net in VR, you may
choose to go out for a night on the town at a popular virtual nightclub
world. You will be able to go to historic, sacred, futuristic, and
vacation world sites. Some worlds have already been developed in which
visitors can help create the environment and live a parallel life there,
much like Sim City and other stand-alone software environments. Users
develop virtual land and structures while interacting (through their
avatars) with other visitors or inhabitants to create a new, virtual
Virtual reality already permits surgeons to test procedures and hone
their skills with no harm to patients. But VR's future in medicine is
Researchers could build an entire virtual human that responds accurately
to disease, injury, and medication. For a number of years, VR developers
have offered simulated organs for medical education and training. Some
even offered it for diagnosis, but only for a specific part of the body.
Now they are developing a full "Virtual Human" with all of the body's
systems interacting and responding to one another.
Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory were first approached by the
military to produce a virtual human upon which they could test nonlethal
weapons. Now working with companies around the world, they hope to make
the virtual human a VR reality within the next 10 years.
With the virtual human, the researchers envision being able to go into
the body and actually see how various organs, individually and in
concert, respond to medications or procedures confronting disease or
injury. They want to see how a heart medication will affect the liver,
pancreas, or other organs. Drug companies are delighted by the prospect
of moving to human trials more quickly or skipping them altogether.
Surgeons could perform surgery on one part of the body and see how it
affects other parts of the body.
Eventually, many virtual humans could be developed that differ in age,
sex, race, or other factors. In the farther future, each of us could have
our own virtual human, making it possible for doctors to individually
tailor our medical treatments.
One of the dreams of VR theorists and developers has been to create an
experience as good and unencumbered as the Holodeck of Star Trek fame.
Most advanced VR experiences still require special VR goggles for
visualization and a wand for navigation. Meanwhile, there are yet newer,
much wilder visions for VR.
In 30 years, tiny nanotechnology processors in our brains will produce VR
experiences, predicts Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual
Machines. These tiny wireless devices will sit next to specific
neurotransmitters in our brains, inspiring them to produce direct VR
experiences. We'll also be able to transmit these experiences wirelessly
But the key issues with VR's future have less to do with technologies
than with what real human life is about. If we want a real life that
values beauty, decency, honesty, virtue, and vision, would we not want
the same for our virtual realities? We need to make our computers do
beautiful things, to connect us, and to support loving relationships in
all that we do because computers and their use in VR are the future of
RELATED ARTICLE: Six Characteristics of Virtual Reality
1. VR produces a computer-generated experience,
2. in which you can navigate in a world,
3. with a sense of presence in the world,
4. some degree of immersion in that you are drawn into that world,
5. interactivity in that the world can respond in some way to your
6. that operates in real time.
Scenario 1: Shari's Cyberbutler, "George" 
Shari sometimes tried to sneak in on "George." She opened the door
quietly, but as soon as she entered the house with her friend Steve, the
lights came up slowly and the curtains began to close. The living room
CyberDeck displayed a sunlit valley on its surround screen. Soft music
played in the background.
"Good evening," said George, the smart house's cyberbutler. "I see you
"This is my friend Steve from work. He's a SuperReality Integrator," she
replied, as if she had to make an introduction and an explanation. "I
want to show him my new CyberDeck."
"Fine. Then I will retire and leave you two alone," George replied.
As Shari led Steve down the hail, lights illuminated their path, then
faded as they moved toward the new CyberDeck, which George had already
turned on. A space world gleamed on its screen.
"George is sounding a little stuffy these days," Shari thought to
herself. "I'll have to adjust that."
"This young man, Steve, seems amiable," thought George to himself. "I
hope things work out for Shari. Perhaps I should order a background check
Scenario 2: A Teenager in Cyberspace 
Annie ran into her room, frustrated. Her parents had hassled her again.
"What a life to be a teen in the 2020s," she thought. She flopped down on
the crumpled pillow on her bed, plugged the commjack into her receptor,
and switched on her Commdeck. "Take me to the nice place," her mind said.
Instantly, she was connected into the Metamatrix, the planetary
communications network. The teen meeting place appeared in her
consciousness. There were lots of interesting people there, all so
beautiful, sexy, and sophisticated--or at least their avatars were.
Annie had just bought a beautiful new avatar at the cybermall, with
perfect features and perfect clothes in colors she'd never seen before.
Annie knew her avatar would make a spectacular impression on her friends.
Her mom and dad wouldn't understand, her mind was fuming now. They
weren't even wired into the Metamatrix. In fact, they didn't know she had
the implanted connection to the Metamatrix. And she wasn't going to tell
Now the Metamatrix experience had begun to wrap around her. Thoughts of
her parents faded. Sound and music enveloped her. Lights danced in her
brain. Kevin appeared before her and began to dance at a frenzied pace.
He looked beautiful, handsome, strong. His avatar was just right, and she
wondered where he got it. She danced feverishly to keep up with his pace,
though her effort was only in her brain. They had a wonderful time and
agreed to meet in the same world-space next week.
After a few hours of revelry, Annie was exhausted. It was all she could
do to remove her receptor and switch off the Commdeck. She fell into a
deep sleep, forgetting all about the troubles with her parents. She had
been more than out on the town.
Virtual Reality Data Box
Virtual reality market, 2001: $22 billion
VR organizations worldwide: 8,512
Average cost of VR system: $92,000
Top VR applications: museums and exhibitions, design evaluations, virtual
Source: CyberEdge Information Services Inc, www.cyberedge.com.
AI, artificial intelligence: computer programs that attempt to emulate
Avatar: a digital "actor" or stand-in representing a user in the virtual
Bot (robot): a computer program, such as a search engine, that automates
tasks. Operates even if the owner is not online.
CAVE: the CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment, developed at the University
Electronic Visualization Laboratory. A room-sized visualization and
using 3-D graphics to create the illusion of being su3rrounded in a
Cyberspace: the digital world constructed by computer networks.
DataGlove: device developed by VPL Research Inc., a glove with sensors
information to a computer in order to track what the hand is doing.
Facemail: Brand name for a program using avatars to deliver talking e-
developed by LifeFX. An advantage of facemail over text e-mail is that
the avatar can use
realistic facial expressions instead of emoticons to provide an emotional
context to a
MUD (Multi-User Dungeon or Dimension): an interactive, simulated
collectively by and for multiple users.
QuickTime VR: software for adding virtual-reality experiences to a
desktop PC with no
special equipment. Viewers can use a mouse or keyboard to rotate objects,
zoom in or
out of a scene, look around 360 degrees, and navigate from one scene to
Tele-immersion: a combination of virtual reality and networking
users in different locations to collaborate in real time in a shared,
as if they were in the same room.
Virtual reality (VR): computer-generated simulation of a real environment
Also called visual simulation (VizSim), virtual environment, artificial
Sources: NetLingo.com; LifeFX.com; Fakespacesystems.com; Internet2.edu;
About the Author
John C. Briggs is CEO of Activation, an affiliate of visualpark.net. He
is the former chief
process officer of NorthLight Technologies, a virtual-reality service
company, and the
former communication director of the Western New York Futurists, a
chapter of the
World Future Society. He lives in Jackson, Michigan. His last article for
THE FUTURIST was "The Promise of Virtual Reality" (September-October
COPYRIGHT 2002 World Future Society
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