THE NEW, IMPROVED REALITY : Will the Ultimate Connection Between Humans and Computers Become the Ultimate Escape?

<i> A. J. S. Rayl is a writer-author living in the real world of Malibu. Her work has appeared in Omni and Rolling Stone. </i>

Mars? Why not Mars? Ever since I was a child, curled up in an overstuffed chair reading Ray Bradbury, I dreamed about venturing into space. I remembered Pritchard in “The Martian Chronicles”: “He wanted to go to Mars on the rocket. He went down to the rocket field in the early morning and yelled through the wire fence at the men in uniform that he wanted to go to Mars. . . .”

I wanted to go to Mars, too. Pritchard had been hauled away, but I’d made it past the wire fence. Now, my mission was about to begin. I slid into position behind the computer, slipped on a DataGlove and adjusted my headgear. . .

Suddenly, the red planet hung before me, tranquil in the vast reaches of space. I could detect the lumps and bumps that were mountains, the pockmarks that were craters. All the technology I needed to maneuver myself was wired into my glove. To fly, I simply pointed in the direction I wanted to go. My thumb served as my throttle, and the more I bent it, the faster I flew. To fly backward, I pointed with two fingers. To stop, I opened my hand. It was a new sensation, sort of like driving a car with a clutch for the first time. After several minutes of lurching forward and backward and stopping abruptly, I got the hang of it and zoomed in to cruise over the planet’s surface.


At one point, I slowed to a hover and attempted a landing. I pointed downward, bent my thumb slowly and made a wobbly touchdown in the middle of Valles Marineris--a barren, desolate valley surrounded by craggy, rust-red rocks. I studied the gravelly ground, half expecting to see a Martian lizard dash out from under the rocks. I soared upward and flew around the valley, mesmerized by the alien surface.

All too quickly, it was time to go. I pulled my headset off. As easy as clicking ruby slippers, I was back home on Earth, sitting in the Virtual Planetary Exploration lab at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, greeted by a beaming Michael McGreevy, principal engineer and research scientist in NASA’s Human Interface Research Branch. “Pretty compelling, isn’t it?” he asks.

You see, I hadn’t gone to Mars on a rocket, but by way of virtual reality, an emerging computer technology that allows you to “break through” the computer screen and enter a three-dimensional world created on software. In this case, I was projected into a fairly realistic, 3-D, digital model of Mars computed from electronic images sent from the Viking orbiters and landers--the same virtual world that NASA scientists and astronauts are using to “explore” Mars.

Touted as the high technology of the ‘90s, virtual reality--or VR, as it’s known--represents the next frontier in the relationship between humans and computers and is destined to change our lives in countless ways. It’s been described as a venture through the looking glass, the ultimate communications device, life-saving technology, even, much to the chagrin of VR pioneers, as electronic LSD. Simply, it’s a revolutionary technology with applications that extend to just about every field--space exploration, medicine, communication, architecture, military training, education and, of course, entertainment.

VR can take you places--like Mars--that otherwise would be impossible to visit, or to other places that don’t really exist. It works like this: You put on a headset and glove (or a full bodysuit), both of which are connected to a computer. The headset, composed of two small liquid-crystal display screens like those on a Sony Watchman (one for each eye) and three layers of magnifying lenses, floods your field of vision with the 3-D virtual world, giving you the illusion of being in it. The headset is equipped with a magnetic tracking device so that the movements you make, say, turning your head, are relayed to the virtual world and your perspective changes accordingly.

The glove, which is wired with fiber-optic cables and sensors that register the motions of your fingers and hand, allows you to move and interact--grasping and even moving virtual objects. A cartoon-like image of the glove appears in the virtual world, so you know where you are in relationship to the environment’s terrain, objects and other inhabitants. Soon, tactile feedback will allow you to touch something virtual and feel it as if it were real.


Currently, VR is fairly specialized--it is used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to simulate planetary exploration and by the military to train pilots, tank commanders and soldiers. But, within the next decade, it will be everywhere: Doctors, for example, will routinely take fantastic voyages into the human body and conduct virtual operations before performing the real thing. Architects will “walk” their clients through a virtual building before the plans are laid in concrete and glass. Students will go back to the time of dinosaurs or experience what it’s like to be an atom. And, within 30 years, VR pioneers predict, every home will have a VR system, through which people can visit other worlds and places, real or imagined, alone or with the entire family. Says McGreevy, who initiated VR at NASA in 1984: “Virtual reality will become a utility we use every day, like electricity.”

The potential commercial and scientific applications of virtual reality are so significant that Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) made it the subject of a special hearing before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space in May in an effort to garner federal support. In fact, VR’s potential is limited only by the imagination. Mathematical physicist Frank Tipler of Tulane University goes so far as to say that once computers become sufficiently powerful, we will be able to create simulations so perfect that we’ll be able to re-create the entire universe.

From Mars, I headed north on the 101 to Wonderland. In a suite of offices overlooking the marina in Redwood City is VPL Research, whose president and chief executive officer, 31-year-old Jaron Lanier, coined the catch-phrase “virtual reality.” VPL began marketing virtual reality systems in 1989; it is still the only American company that does. The systems feature two Silicon Graphics machines (the power base), a Macintosh computer, a headset, DataGlove or DataSuit and cost upward of $350,000. VPL has already sold about 400 systems, Lanier says. VPL is also marketing the first shared VR system, RB2--Reality Built for 2.

Lanier, as it turned out, had reinflamed an old back injury and was at home, where I would meet up with him later. In the meantime, I slipped on EyePhones, VPL’s trademark name for the earphone-equipped headset, and the company’s patented DataGlove and found myself in a room with a table on which sat three virtual computer terminals. “Pick one,” said David Levitt, VPL director of audio and simulation. Though in a virtual world, I could still hear Levitt, who stood behind me. I chose the terminal in the middle. “Good, now just fly into it,” he said.

I pointed to it, using my thumb as a throttle. After several misses, I flew through the middle screen and wound up in a colorful cartoon Wonderland where Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and other characters were standing or sitting around a long table, having tea. This being an early program, none of them moved or spoke to me, but I suddenly understood how Roger Rabbit must have felt being a toon in the real world. My challenge was to pick up the teapot. Grasping the pot wasn’t easy because I couldn’t feel it. But eventually I saw my hand on top of it, made a fist and lifted--and there it was in midair. Nothing poured out, however, so I let go of it, and it floated to the ground.

“OK, let’s try another world,” Levitt suggested. I backed out of the world into the virtual command center where the three terminals were. Then I flew through another terminal into another world, where I could hear a bouncing ball. This more advanced virtual world featured VPL’s Audiosphere, or 3-D sound system. “This is Munchkin,” Levitt said, introducing me to the bouncing ball. “Ooooh, come on--catch me!” Munchkin urged in a high, cartoony voice. I grabbed the ball, and, as I did, I heard a sssshshsh . Much easier than the teapot. “Throw me!” Munchkin urged. No problem. I hurled Munchkin and it went flying into a wall-- POW --and then dropped to the floor-- BOING!


I left the virtual world and entered the real one. From VPL, I headed south to Lanier’s new home in Palo Alto. Lanier has probably projected more people into virtual worlds than anyone else--among them Steven Spielberg, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, science-fiction writer William Gibson and rocker Peter Gabriel. That combined with his undying enthusiasm about the technology, his penchant for poetic definitions (“Virtual reality is shared intentional dreams brought to you through technology”) and blond dreadlocks have gained him media renown as the prophet of virtual reality.

Lanier and his self-described “virtual spouse,” psychologist Debby Harlow, guide me around stacks of cardboard boxes and a variety of musical instruments into the living room. “Moving hell,” sighs Lanier. Despite his pain and discombobulated surroundings, he was in jovial spirits as we began to talk over stuffed grape leaves, crackers and tea.

“There’s a huge amount of misinformation about what VR is,” Lanier says, leaning carefully back onto the sofa. “A lot of stories exaggerate the current state of the art, giving the impression that there’s a kind of photorealism or real simulation of everyday experience, which, in fact, there is not.”

VR is not glitch-free. Depending on how quickly you move in a virtual world, there can be a lag in the simulated world’s response to your changed perspective. Computer processing power is limited, after all. Generating a detailed digital image in 3-D requires hours of computation for every frame of every picture, and the more detail or information you put in, the more difficult it is for the computer to instantaneously manipulate it.

Virtual worlds are usually cartoon-like, and the images can appear fuzzy--the sophistication of the headsets and the precision of the programming vary, depending on the system and the purpose. The NASA Martian terrains are more realistic than, say, VPL’s Alice in Wonderland. “Industrial worlds take a long time to build because of all the detail that must be accurate,” Lanier says. “For worlds in which you’re just sharing imagination, that kind of precision detail is not as crucial.”

The technology is, however, advancing. During the past year, VPL increased detail and depth by adding texture and radiosity (a feature that alters the lighting to fit the user’s needs) to virtual worlds. The company also has just introduced its third-generation EyePhones HRX , and the images are as crisp as those you’d see on television. A third-generation DataGlove, complete with tactile sensation, is in the works.


The advent of tactile sensation has led many to speculate about virtual sex. Lanier rolls his eyes. “A virtual woman or man is going to be a very dull plaything indeed,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous idea and will probably exist only on the level of those blowup party dolls.”

The public has also been confused, Lanier says, by the psychedelic-drug metaphors. “The only reason that that idea is around is because Tim Leary is now making something of a living talking about VR,” Lanier says. Leary has been touting virtual reality as “the trip of the ‘90s--without chemicals.” Not exactly an apt comparison; with VR, the user is always in control and, as is not the case with psychedelic drugs, can stop the experience at any time.

“To me, all of this is just poisoning the ideological well,” says Lanier. “There are many reasons why VR is an amazing experience. For one thing, VR doesn’t have the mandatory-ness that reality has. You can do and be anything or anyone in VR, which gives you an incredible sense of freedom and control of the world.

“But VR is significant because, and this may sound strange, it re-creates the commons. Especially in California. We see less of each other than any other society in history. We tool around in our little bubbles called cars, sit in cubicles and look at screens and we’re always sitting and looking at the world through painted glass. VR--though it’s virtual--re-creates the commons, actually an expanded commons.”

Imagine 15 years in the future, you go home, put on sunglasses and a glove and you see a virtual shelf with fishbowls on it. In one is the City Council meeting, in another is a shopping center, in another a baseball game. You put your hand in one bowl and it grows giant all around you. Then you’re in that world. You will be using a VR network so that world also includes everyone else who chose that virtual world at that time. These are real people, though their appearance is virtual, and you can communicate with them. Unlike computer conferencing networks or the home access network Prodigy, VR is, Lanier stresses, “a place where people can meet, not only in body but also in mind. It’s better than a park in the middle of town.”

With VR you make imagination real. “That,” he says, “could be as exciting as sharing wonderful, far-out dreams or as mundane as making kitchens.” At a Matsushita-owned department store in Tokyo, a VPL system does, in fact, help design kitchens. If customers don’t like the placement of the refrigerator or the cabinets, they simply “pick” them up and move them.


Virtual reality dates back to the ‘60s and Ivan E. Sutherland. Considered the father of virtual reality, Sutherland developed the first computer-aided design system. At a 1965 industry conference, Sutherland described the “Ultimate Display,” where the computer graphics screen served as a window into another world, where objects look real, feel real and move realistically. Three years later, he created the first head-mounted display at the University of Utah. It featured two small cathode-ray-tube monitors, suspended from the ceiling and strapped to the viewer’s head.

Sutherland inexplicably stopped his virtual work in the mid-’70s (this spring, however, he began virtual world research at Sun Microsystems), but others have carried his concepts forward. “He had the grand vision,” says Fred Brooks, who heads the computer science department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Inspired by Sutherland’s vision, Brooks oversaw the development of a hand-grip that produces force-feedback and allows science students to feel the atomic forces of the enlarged, 3-D molecules they now view through the headsets.

Meanwhile, Thomas A. Furness was pioneering the use of virtual-reality technology for the Air Force. At Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, he oversaw the development of advanced systems, including Head Up Displays. By the early ‘80s, he had also developed the Visually Coupled Airborne Simulator, dubbed the Darth Vader helmet, which projected a 3-D target area onto the pilot’s helmet visor.

NASA’s McGreevy realized the potential of virtual worlds for planetary exploration and, by 1984 had secured the necessary government funding to launch NASA’s virtual journey, creating the Virtual Visual Environment Display. Though he tried to buy a Darth Vader helmet from the Air Force, he found the $1-million price tag out of reach, so he and a contractor created their own version from two tiny Radio Shack TVs, mounted into a motorcycle helmet and hooked into an off-the-shelf computer system.

Not all research related to virtual reality technology included such intricate headgear. In the early ‘70s, Myron Krueger, an artist and then-computer-science professor, began work in what he dubbed “artificial reality.” Krueger wanted to allow users to participate without encumbering equipment. In 1975, he introduced Videoplace, in which the computer “sees” and responds to the participant through a video camera directed at a backlit projection screen. Videoplace, now on display at the University of Conneticut, is two-dimensional. When you step in front of the camera, your silhouette appears on the screen, along with various artificial creatures or worlds, in one of 50 different modes programmed into the system. In the artificial world dubbed “Superman,” you can watch your silhouette fly over a cityscape by stretching your hands overhead--the computer projects your silhouette in the direction your hands are pointing. “The fact that Videoplace is a come-as-you-are experience makes it easier to get in and out, and easier to maintain,” Krueger says.

The idea of being completely in another world, however, was irresistible. In 1981, Thomas Zimmerman, who with Lanier co-founded VPL, invented the first glove with sensors. While that glove only registered finger movements, Lanier, who before getting into VR had invented “Moondust” for Creative Software, conceived of using the DataGlove to interact with virtual objects. He mounted a magnetic tracking device into the glove so that the user could gain a sense of where he was in the virtual world, and patented the DataGlove.


Last year, the public got its first, very cursory taste of VR when a low-cost (about $80), toy version of VPL’s DataGlove, called the PowerGlove, hit toy stores. Distributed by Mattel, the PowerGlove is designed to be used with Nintendo’s Super Glove Ball game. When you put on the PowerGlove, you see a little hand on the screen that moves in synchrony with your hand. You can pick up the ball, bat it and play the game.

Although more than a million PowerGloves have been sold, Lanier has mixed emotions. “To me, television and video games put one in a biologically unsafe environment--people shut half themselves down while watching TV and become ‘zombified,’ and Nintendo is worse. True interactivity means there are infinite possibilities just like you have in dreams. And that is what VR is all about.”

Although the entertainment aspect may make VR accessible to the masses initially, the most significant consequences of virtual reality may be in medical technology. In Palo Alto, near Stanford, Greenleaf Medical Systems is incorporating virtual reality into state-of-the-art devices that will assist the handicapped and help doctors assess patient progress in physical rehabilitation.

Walter Greenleaf, co-founder and chief executive officer of GMS, first met Lanier on the Palo Alto /Stanford high-tech circuit in the late ‘70s. In 1988, Greenleaf licensed exclusive medical rights to VPL’s DataGlove and DataSuit technology.

The GloveTalker, GMS’s first VR technology-based product, is on display in the company’s demonstration room. It consists of a Macintosh computer, a DataGlove and proprietary software. I slip on the glove. “OK, make a gesture, any gesture,” Greenleaf says. I give him a thumbs-up sign. “Let’s say that means ‘I want some water,’ ” he says, punching a few buttons on the keyboard. We go through a series of other gestures, a pointing gesture to mean “hello,” a peace sign to mean “I’m OK.” Each gesture and corresponding phrase is stored in the computer’s memory and assigned a number. “Now, make one of those gestures,” Greenleaf commands. I make a peace sign, and the phrase “I’m OK” is not only typed out on the computer screen, it’s also pronounced. The DataGlove translates gestures into what amounts to talking sign language.

“The GloveTalker is designed for use primarily in a hospital setting for, say, someone whose larynx has been removed, or stroke victims, or people with cerebral palsy who have both motion and vocal impairment,” Greenleaf says. The system, which can be programmed with a couple hundred phrases, has been used experimentally for a year at Loma Linda University Medical Center and further testing is about to begin at Cal State Northridge. It will be on the medical market in a year or so.


The Motion Analysis System, also in development, will incorporate the DataSuit. As the patient moves, the DataSuit will transmit 3-D images to the computer screen, allowing the doctor to see exactly what is going on. Scheduled to hit the market in about a year and a half, the system will also help speed patient rehabilitations. Consider stroke victims who have to relearn how to walk. “If you dissect someone’s motions, and slow down the process, which you can do with this technology, and give them immediate feedback, it will make relearning the task much easier. And the patient would be more likely to stick with the program,” Greenleaf says.

Another dramatic medical development is the creation of virtual worlds of the human body that can be used for trial-run surgery. Plastic surgeon Joseph Rosen and graduate students Scott Delt of Stanford and Steve Piper of MIT have been creating three-dimensional models, mathematical blueprints of various parts of the body designed for use in simulating reconstructive surgery. Just as one can move the parts of a kitchen around, surgeons will be able to rearrange virtual parts of a body.

“If, for example, you want to perform a cleft-lip repair,” says Rosen, formerly of Stanford and now of Dartmouth, “and you’ve got the 3-D model in the computer, students or doctors could actually move the tissue around and test it to make sure it will work.” Such an opportunity is invaluable for intricate operations or for procedures a doctor might perform only once or twice. In about three to five years, Rosen predicts, physicians will be using surgical simulation--manipulating generic 3-D models on a routine basis.

Rosen and Ann Lasco-Harvill (Lasco-Harvill co-developed VPL’s DataSuit) have spent the past six months creating a generic colon for use in VPL’s virtual reality system. Since every body is different, the ideal situation for a physician would be to have his patient’s specific data transferred into a 3-D model. And that, Lasco-Harvill says, is on the horizon. “The CAT scan and MRI data revolution is occurring parallel to ours, and as our graphics engines get faster, these technologies will converge with VR,” she says. “Then we would actually be able, in a short amount of time, to have an individual’s specific hard and soft tissue right there in 3-D by superimposing the CAT scan and MRI data over the generic virtual organ.”

The next step, obviously, is to add a headset and glove and project doctors on a voyage through the virtual body (or body part). Rosen is working with VPL to determine the potential of taking surgical simulation into true virtual reality. At the University of North Carolina, radiologists have already journeyed into a virtual human chest to position beams of radiation and “zap” lung tumors. Rather than a glove, they use a hollowed-out billiard ball filled with electronics, basically a six-dimensional mouse, to position the beams.

Despite the serious nature of such medical research, VR’s entertainment factor is ever-present. In fact VPL’s first experiment in the medical realm is now entertaining Grateful Dead audiences. “Last year,” Lanier recalls, “we scanned the hand of a patient and converted the data over to the VR system. The result was a skeleton hand. So far as I know, it was the first medical image in history that not only gathered the internal shapes of the body, but something of the way they moved.”


When Jerry Garcia’s daughter asked, Lanier said, “OK,” and now that very realistic skeleton hand, projected onto a screen behind the band, appears in Dead shows. “One of the things I feel bad about,” confesses Lanier, “is that I don’t even know this guy whose hand it is. But I hope he’s a cooperative kind of person--maybe even a Dead Head.”

o far, the cost of virtual reality technology has made it prohibitive for most of the private sector. Not surprisingly, many of the most advanced systems belong to federally funded institutions--the Pentagon, for one. The U.S. military has long been on the cutting edge of virtual graphics systems, though the term virtual reality is not part of military lexicon. The pilots who flew sorties over Baghdad trained in virtual reality simulators or, to use the military’s term, simulators with computer-generated imagery of target sites.

General Electric, one of the military’s primary suppliers of 3-D graphics systems, has a series of systems under the trade name Compu-scene. They range from fairly simple generic geographic environments to complete Mission Rehearsal Systems with realistic 3-D digital models. “Pilots and tank commanders can, from their simulator cockpit or tank, fly or drive through these three-dimensional worlds, and--since we are exclusively military--shoot and blow things up as well,” says Ken Kilner, GE’s manager of marketing communications in Daytona Beach, Fla. With a picture quality that lies between television and high-definition TV, these environments are remarkably realistic. That quality is reflected in the cost--$1 million for a basic system and around $30 million for, say, the entire MH53J Special Forces helicopter simulator.

At NASA, VR may be the only way we can explore some of the planets in our solar system. Consider Venus. It’s impossible to take photographs because the clouds around it are too thick. Landing would be impossible because the surface is too hot. The only way to explore the planet now is virtually. The Magellan Spacecraft, which is orbiting Venus, is using sophisticated radar technology to create a hologram, which is computed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena into virtual environments. Unfortunately, only Magellan scientists are allowed to board these “flights.”

The prospects of making virtual reality systems widely available soon seem pretty bleak. Myron Krueger has submitted numerous grant proposals to take his Videoplace technology into classrooms, but all have been turned down. “It would completely change the way students learn,” he says. “Rather than sitting in a classroom all day, they could be actively learning about the world through artificial environments.”

Fifth- and sixth-graders at the private Nueva Learning Center in Hillsborough use a VPL system to build their own worlds. While numerous members of Congress have expressed interest in putting VR in schools, Lanier says, “we have to remember how poor our government is right now.”


With all the hype and excitement surrounding VR, you’d think American companies would be banging down lab doors to invest. That has not been the case. Krueger, who’s developed plans for a Videodesk that uses virtual paper and a virtual keyboard, has tried unsuccessfully to interest American businesses. “The technology is here now and far surpasses, for example, the fax machine,” he says. “Not only could we revolutionize the American business office, we could save our trees.”

In Japan, it’s a different story. The Japanese government has earmarked tens of millions of dollars for consortiums to study VR, or what the Japanese term “intimate presence.” And most major Japanese electronic firms, Lanier points out, have created VR departments.

That is one of the reasons Senator Gore is seeking federal support. “We invented this technology, but now as it enters the application stage, the Japanese are spending 10 times as much as we are to take the basic breakthrough and apply it,” he says. “There are multibillion-dollar applications, and we ought to participate in them.”

Entertainment, say all of those in the field, is the key that will unlock all virtual doors. “Entertainment is as important as anything, for the simple reason that it will generate money,” says Krueger. W. Industries of Leicester, England, launched Virtuality, a VR system for the arcade market last spring. Players “enter” a virtual world by sitting in the Virtuality 1000SD module, putting on a Visette--a visor with a stereoscopic wraparound screen and quadraphonic sound--and then taking command of a joystick. Players can compete against the computer, or the self-contained modules can be networked so that players, via a built-in microphone, can communicate and compete with each other while in the same virtual world. Virtuality modules, which are in production, cost about $40,000 each; W. Industries is working on a U.S. distribution deal.

Earlier this year, MCA and VPL formed a joint venture called Virtual Reality Entertainment to create VR theaters. The first test theater is tentatively scheduled to open in Universal’s new City Walk development next year.

Thirty people will be in the audience. Two audience members don headsets and gloves. Six others sit at computer stations and have the ability to create obstacles or aid the two playing the game. They all enter a virtual world. In that world is a performance artist, called a changeling, who will assume a variety of shapes and who could be friend or foe. It will resemble improvisational theater more than a narrative movie.


“It’ll be like being one of the characters in a game, like the Mario Brothers, while also playing the game,” says MCA Vice President Jim Fiedler.

Inside word, however, is that Japan is negotiating with Virtual Reality Entertainment for the first VR theater--in Japan. Fiedler is not forthcoming. “We’re trying to open the first one in L.A. because we want to deal with an audience that we know, but if one of the other projects comes to fruition first, then we’re going to do it.”

And what about virtual reality movies? Well, that’s not really feasible. If you’re in VR and somebody else controls where you look, it creates a conflict between what you’re feeling and what you’re seeing. “And that,” Lanier says, “can cause people to throw up.”

The fact that virtual reality is so compelling has caused some people to speculate about the potential negative social ramifications. Its allure, some fear, could cause people to drop out of the real world. “It’s just a given that a certain proportion of people will abuse it, but then a certain proportion of people manage to abuse almost everything,” McGreevy says.

“VR does not represent a retreat, but an alternate way to find each other,” says Lanier. “It’s a different experience than television or video games. The thrust is toward the social, active and creative, not the passive and retreating.”

While the relatively few people who have experienced VR demos have done so individually, VR’s pioneers agree that its essence is that it’s shared. “Networking is the acid test,” says Randy Walsner of the software company AutoDesk, which is working on Cyberspace, a virtual reality software for basic personal computers. “You aren’t there until you can gather many people in one place,” he says.


Within five years, Lanier predicts, telephone companies will be experimenting with virtual reality networks. These would link virtual travelers, probably via phone lines, enabling participants to dial up and enter complex, sophisticated worlds that are maintained somewhere in a central data base and processor.

“You could see for yourself what the astronauts are doing, or explore Mars and the moons of Jupiter, and all from the comfort of your own living room,” McGreevy says.

Thomas Furness, who has moved his VR research into the civilian sector as director of the Human Interface Technology Lab, a state-funded, industrial research institution at the University of Washington, is laying the conceptual groundwork for home VR systems. His Virtual Retina Scanner would replace the heavy headsets of today and would look like a pair of glasses without the glass. They would scan images directly onto the participant’s retina. He also has plans for Virtuphone, a communication device that would allow users to call up virtual worlds.

These systems of the future probably will not be packaged as a computer and modems. They probably will be a box you plug into the wall like a telephone. Virtual travelers will dial up the world of their choice, put on a pair of sunglasses, slip on a glove and go shopping for a new home, visit the land of the dinosaurs, explore Venus, or check out the Lakers game or whatever else is on the network.

“But,” cautions Lanier, “don’t ever think that virtual reality is better than the real world. It’s no panacea--just a new place where you can share and co-create dreams.”