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World of virtual reality gets real, eerily real sometimes

Maybe it's time to remove "virtual" from "virtual reality."

Our kids don't particularly care about the difference, and this will be their world soon.

The expression "virtual reality" conveys how we use information technology to create artificial, three-dimensional places, typically using goggles or wired gloves or some combination. We'll eventually have full-body suits, brain implants and other ways to make the imagined experience more realistic.

Some dazzling examples of the current state of the art were on display recently in San Jose, where the Association for Computing Machinery put on a technology exposition featuring advanced technology from some of the world's top corporate and university researchers.

Among them: Silicon Graphics' Reality Centre, combining a big screen and fierce sound reinforcement, took us for rides in fighter jets. Immersion Corp.'s "force feedback" devices added physical resistance to joystick movements, forcing us to push harder to penetrate a barrier. ArtplusCom's T-Vision started with a view of Earth from outer space, and allowed us to swoop and zoom in on the convention center and surrounding streets in a stunningly realistic series of displays. We were appropriately humiliated by IBM's Deep Blue Jr. chess player.

Adults gawked. Kids grinned.

The kids find it all essentially normal, even the most out-there technology. They're increasingly accustomed to screens and joysticks and keyboards and microphones, just as their parents grew up with televisions.

I doubt it occurs to a kid to think of a VR game as anything but a game, except perhaps as more an interesting or fun game than the PlayStation or Lego kit. The next generation will consider such stuff even more routine.

Context plays a role. Each generation of adults describes some new technology or lifestyle based on what came before. Their children, for whom it's no longer new, revise the language accordingly. So the horseless carriage becomes the car.

No one can doubt that what we call virtual reality will become more and more a part of our lives. It's already essential in some professions; airline pilots get part of their training in simulators, for example. The technology's potential for education and entertainment seems unlimited.

Some worry that ever-more-realistic simulation will be so seductive _ not just in the sexual sense as X-rated fare takes advantage of the new technologies _ that people will prefer simulated worlds to the real one. Philosophers will have a grand time when that happens, as they debate the nature of reality itself: If you experience it, is it real?

Tomorrow's virtual reality will be a multisense, 3-D experience. What that will mean for society is a topic for smarter people than me. My generation adamantly insists that true, face-to-face meetings are essential for business and everyday social contacts, but I'm not at all sure that our kids, or theirs, won't be generally satisfied with the new kinds of communications we're only now inventing.

In 50 years, I wonder, what will they find new and amazing? What will they describe in the limited context of their own times, in ways that make their own descendants look back with a knowing smile at such innocence?

_ Write Dan Gillmor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190; (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917; e-mail:

Web: http://www.sjmercury. com/business/gillmor