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Part Two: The Rôle of VRML

2.1 Virtual Reality: Imitation or Simulation?

2.1.1 Public Perception of Virtual Reality

The term 'Virtual Reality' (VR) has been used by researchers to describe a number of very different computerised systems. The image it invariably conjures up in people's minds is one of head sets, data gloves and total immersion within a virtual world that encompasses a sophisticated illusion of everyday reality. The idea that the goal of VR is to imitate reality, an idea furthered by the entertainment-driven VR industry, trivialises the possibilities of VR and also leads to disappointment when the actuality invariably fails to meet the hype.

2.1.2 The Development of Virtual Reality

Most of the major components of what we now think of as VR were developed in the early 1960s by Ivan Sutherland at the University of Utah (Sutherland 1965). This included body tracking and head-mounted display systems. At this time the prohibitive costs of computing power were such that these developments were only available to largely military institutions. By the 1980s a drop in the real cost of computing coupled with the development of relatively cheap LCD displays brought the possibility of commercial and even personal VR much closer. NASA's Ames research centre's Virtual Interface Environment Workstation Project developed the modern head -mounted display whilst Jaron Lanier's UPL Research Inc. (Heilbrun Research Inc.) developed the Data Glove. As a result of these innovations it was now possible for people to experience a degree of immersive virtual reality. The entertainment industry seized this emerging technology and very quickly hyped its capabilities well beyond the limits of the existing hardware and software. Most peoples experiences of VR were disappointing, the resolution of head-mounted displays was very poor and the field of vision limited. Images flickered as a result of low screen refresh rates that were too slow to provide smooth animations, resulting in a perceptible lag between movement and displayed image. In addition the motion tracking and tactile feed-back devices incorporated into these systems were mechanical and unconvincing, resulting often in no greater an experience within the user than nausea. Virtual Reality rides at theme parks soon declined in popularity and the home VR systems so eagerly envisaged by the entertainment industry failed to appear.

2.1.3 A Re-evaluation of Virtual Reality

By the mid 1990s much of this hyperbole had died down, enabling a critical re-evaluation of VR to take place. Current VR systems are not good at imitating reality, but do come into their own in the simulation of reality. Simulated objects are far more than projections of reality, they are instead independent mathematical constructs, ideal platonic forms which approach more the 'hyper-reality' of Baudrillard (Baudrillard 1988) than the familiar reality of everyday life. If the emphasis is given over to simulation rather than imitation then the manifold problems encountered with the effectiveness of display media are negated as the absolute need for immersive systems is removed. Here VR is not trying to imitate reality but instead the simulation of aspects of reality as a sensual form of communication. We are well versed in the interpretation of sensual information and it is this precisely that VR can provide.


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