Wouldn't it be great if you could walk through the dream house you are planning to build before the first nail is driven?
Or how about taking a boat ride through the port before a major overhaul?
And if you need major surgery, wouldn't it be reassuring if the doctor could practice on a lifeless model that is an exact replica of your own body before he slices through your hide?
Virtual reality, where computers simulate an entire environment, is making all that happen. While most commercial applications of virtual reality today are in the entertainment industry--and the most advanced forms of VR, as it is known, are still confined to the military--the technology is starting to find an important place in real estate, construction, medicine and many other realms.
"The technology has taken a quantum leap in the last year, and the price is coming down," says Robert Jacobson, president of World Design in Seattle, which works solely in the field of virtual reality. "The projects we will be doing this year will be using much cheaper technology."
The CAD Institute in Phoenix, the first accredited college to offer a degree in virtual reality, is one of several organizations across the country now specializing in taking two-dimensional images, such as blueprints, and scaling them up to computerized, three-dimensional images that are astonishingly realistic.
In most cases, a headset worn by the user projects different images to the left and right eyes, immersing him or her in the world of virtual reality.
"When I first got into this four years ago, a lot of universities and industries laughed at us," says Matt Westfield, industry services adviser for the CAD Institute. " 'Excuse me,' they said, 'what the heck are you going to do with that?' "
What they are doing with "that," he insists, will revolutionize diverse fields such as architecture, engineering, medicine and city planning.
In medicine, for example, researchers in North Carolina are developing a VR system that holds considerable promise for particularly difficult surgeries. Scientists there can take data from a CAT scan or magnetic resonance imaging of an individual and put the information into a computer. That allows them to create a three-dimensional image of the actual patient--not a generic human body--so surgeons can practice on it with "virtual lasers" or "virtual scalpels" before the operation.
But much of what's going on in VR today is more mundane and cheaper than "virtual surgery."
For example, the CAD Institute last year developed a VR program to enable executives from telephone company US West to "walk through" a new laboratory building before construction even began.
"We took their two-dimensional drawings and raised them into three dimensions," Westfield says. The resulting images were transmitted through a headset worn by US West executives: As you turn your head to the right while "walking" through the building, you see whatever is to your right. Move forward and you find out just how difficult it is to maneuver between display cases that were crammed in too tightly.
The preview allowed the phone company to make several changes before building the facility.
And the CAD Institute has entered an agreement with IBM to train technicians for a new VR computer system called Elysium, being manufactured by IBM in Scotland. Elysium uses an advanced headset with a built-in gyroscope that automatically tells the computer where the user is looking, and it is supposed to offer high-resolution, 3-D graphics.
The new IBM system, with prices ranging from $10,000 to $80,000, is for architectural and construction firms that want to give their customers a better advance look at what they will be getting.
Even that technology, however, is considered obsolete by some. "Most people don't want to wear goggles, and they certainly don't want to wear anything that cuts them off from other people," says World Design's Jacobson. His firm is at the forefront of something called "cave technology," and his experience in Seattle shows both the strength and the difficulty of winning acceptance for contemporary VR.
In cave technology, high-resolution computer images are projected on three walls, surrounding the user with three-dimensional images. No goggles or headsets are needed. Although more expensive, it allows several people to share an experience simultaneously and interact as they move through the "virtual world."
He thought his technology would help the Port of Seattle explain major changes planned for the busy harbor. Initial reaction from port executives was favorable, Jacobson says, but the authorities later decided the technology was just too far out.
Jacobson's firm did it anyway.
"We created a virtual world model of the port's environmental impact statement," said Chet Dagit, vice president of World Design. Hundreds of people "toured" the port with its proposed changes from inside the theater while the exhibit was in Seattle, and hundreds of others saw it demonstrated in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
The demonstration served its purpose: Some changes were made in the plans for the port and Jacobson landed other contracts.
For coming projects, Jacobson expects to use a system that is even more advanced than cave technology. It grew out of a partnership between "scientific visualization specialist" David Bennett and longtime VR guru Ray Idaszak. The two were working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park when they came up with an idea.
Why not use a system similar to a planetarium, they wondered, in which people could be subjected to 360-degree immersion in virtual reality? In 1992, they produced their first demonstration project.
"What we got was an extremely immersive environment," Bennett says.
"The special effects were fantastic. If you were inside, you felt like you could take a baseball and throw it out to infinity. It was really awesome."
Sixteen months ago, the two founded their own company, Ultimate Realities of Research Triangle Park. They are producing domes of various sizes, mostly around 14 to 16 feet in diameter--large enough to accommodate several people.
"We love the fact that we don't have to wear helmets," Bennett says.
Visitors inside the dome see a high-resolution image, projected from a device in the center of the dome, surrounding them on all sides. Bennett says the system is ideal for touring a planned building or traveling through a three-dimensional model of the molecules that make up a chemical compound.
Such a system now costs about $250,000, he says, but volume production could bring entry-level unit prices down to the $20,000 to $50,000 range.