by December 5, 2002 0 comments



“The Matrix is…all around us…. It’s the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth that you are a slave…in a prison…that you cannot smell, taste or touch. A prison for your mind. No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” Morpheus’ famous dialogue in Matrix sums up what VR (Virtual Reality) can do to your senses. 

Just plain foolin’
VR fools our senses into believing that they are in a ‘particular’ environment, while they are not. For example, the film Matrix is set in the late 22nd century in a world that has been ravaged by decades of nuclear warfare between man and machine. Humans have been enslaved by Ego, the artificial intelligence of the machines, to provide energy, by fooling them into thinking that they are living in late twentieth century. Though their physical bodies are kept in huge chrysalises immersed in nutrient-providing fluids, human brains have been tricked into thinking that they enjoy all the freedom, the bustle and chaos of 20th life, by sending neural signals to their brains. 

Roadmap 
Though, it is thought of as technology yet to happen, the origins of VR lie in the flight simulators built by the aircraft industry during the post Second World War period for training US Air Force pilots. Training was done on a cockpit placed on movable platforms that swayed, tilted and rolled according to the pilot’s actions. The idea was later developed further by Hollywood in the form of stereoscopic or 3D cinema (Cinemarama) in the 1950s and VR arcades like Sensorama invented in 1962 by Morton Heilig, a documentary filmmaker.

Sensorama was a bike-simulation ride that allowed riders to experience all the sensory experiences of a motorcycle ride by combining 3D movies, stereo sound, wind resistance and even smell while riding through different scenes like New York
streets.

Meanwhile AI (Artificial Intelligence) research carried on from the 1960s onwards provided a platform for the VR development of today. Superscape, Fifth Dimension Technologies and Eon Reality are some of the companies that specialize in VR software for different needs. SGI and SEOS are some of the hardware vendors in
VR.

Matrix now?

Nick Bostrom is a lecturer at the department of Philosophy at Yale, and is slated to move in to a three year research position at Oxford. An MA in Physics from the University of Stockholm, MSc in Computational neuroscience from Kings College, London and a PhD in Philosophy from the London School of Economics, Bostrom sounds unlike someone going around making absurd claims. Well, Bostrom argues that there is a 25 percent chance that we are simulations alive in a Matrix-like computer generated environment!
Briefly, his arguments run like this: A technologically mature, post-human civilization would have enormous computing power, which it could use to run simulations on how its ancestors evolved. His paper, available at www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html argues that unless we are currently living in a simulation, then the chances that a post human civilization would want to run a simulation on its ancestors is slim.

VR: the reality
Flight simulators, interactive museum tours, auto designing, oil exploration and even treatment of the phobia of flying are some of the real life situations where VR is currently used. VR can lead to more intuitive ways for both mankind to use data and computing. 3D movies, virtual-reality rooms, motion simulation devices and supercomputers that can create realistic 3D displays through output devices, like head displays, is where mankind stands now in the VR timeline, quite far away from the world depicted in Matrix.

Unlike the neural signals that were sent to the bioport (interface hardwired to the central nervous system) of Neo (Keanu Reeves) in Matrix, current attempts to simulate virtual reality is dependent on actual perception of audio-video, locomotory and olfactory signals to the concerned physical organs (eyes, ears, nose, hands etc) to convince us that we are in a different world. VR in our real world has not quite caught up with the futuristic life in sci-fi movies. As of now, it depends on head-mounted or wall-mounted displays, stereophonic sound and simulators. 

The
term Virtual Reality was coined by Jaron Lanier, the founder of VPL
Research (1989). Similar concepts include ‘Artificial Reality’
(Myron Krueger, 1970s) and Cyberspace (William Gibson, 1984).

Medical researchers in UK have claimed limited success in inducing sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, pleasure etc in
laboratory rats by sending electrical signals into electrodes implanted in their brains. But it will be quite some time before advances in medicine catch up with those of IT so as to wire VR experiences directly into the central nervous system instead of using complicated simulators as of now. Researchers at the University of Illinois have created a room sized cube which provides Immersive Visualization (see Virtual drilling @ONGC box) by projecting stereo images on the walls of a room-like cube. People who wear special glasses can walk freely inside this room to experience VR. A head-tracking system continuously adjusts the stereo projection to the position of
the leader.

Crash tests at Tata Tech

IF CAD and CAM software allowed designers to visualize 3D images on their monitors, virtual reality design labs up the ante by enabling precise 3D visualizations in “larger than life” size cylindrical or spherical screens. Auto designers love being able to strip a car down to its last nut and bolt, and then rebuild it from scratch with design changes here and there. What about crashing hundreds of prototypes into smithereens? No company will be able to spend so much money or time doing all that. A virtual design center allows you to simulate all these again and again. Drive the prototype on a virtual road and watch it compare against the rest of the competition. Look at it through a bird’s eye view from 20 feet up in the air, or slide into the driver’s seat and check out the field of vision. This is what Tata Technologies does at their CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) Center in
Pune. The CAE consists of a 16 processor SGI Origin 3400 supercomputer with 16 GB storage. Also used are five Octane2 and 18 Fuel visual workstations as well as three TP9100 storage systems from
SGI. 
European auto makers claim to save more than 30% of their design expenditure by using VR techniques.

Sometime in the not so distant future, we may be able to load up knowledge/training modules like the Kung Fu/weapons training modules used to train Keanu Reeves. Perhaps then, VR might allow us to “bend or break some rules” in the real world in order to satisfy the human quest for knowledge. Imagine becoming a Linux or C# geek in a few seconds by simply loading the required module into your mind!

The immense possibilities depicted in Matrix do not exist as of now. But given the pace of scientific innovation, the day might not be all that far when VR might encompass every aspect of our lives. Imagine being able to meet relatives living in the other side of the world as virtual projections of our real physical selves at a virtual meeting point. Unless of course, we are already slaves of an all encompassing Matrix ( see box Matrix now!)!

Benoy George Thomas

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