Strapped in a Head Mounted Device (HMD)-running Prosolvia Clarus software designed for simulated tank warfare, it’s easy to go virtual. The terrain is hilly and the turret of your Leopard series tank is taking on an enemy helicopter. As gunner of the tank you have loaded air defence ammunition in the barrel and you press release on your joystick the moment your tank commander aligns the periscope with the moving target. Your depth perception has been off on your first shot. You miss. You map your coordinates again, synchronise the flight path of your shell. This time you don’t miss. The helicopter bursts into flames and you can spot the debris falling on the snow-covered slopes. Your current exercise has been a high-altitude manouevre.
The instructor sets a new battlefield scenario for your next exercise. A desert strike force moving to zap entrenched enemy positions. At the end of your exercises, you get your computerised marksheet for the day. What’s more, it details where you went wrong and by how much. What you also get is a bit of virtual jet lag, a time gap before you adjust to the real world.
At $100,000 for the virtual reality (VR) simulator, the gizmo is 50 times cheaper than what it would have cost five years ago; and it is a possible buy for the Army Training Command at Shimla for the simple reason that real life training leads to hardware attrition that puts tremendous budget strain on a Third World army. In another five years Prosolvia, a Sweden-based company, hopes to totally eliminate hydraulics out of the virtual simulators. The new genre machines would have electrodes taped on your skull sending electrical impulses simulating the vestibular system.
Prosolvia Clarus was just one of the dozen-odd companies at the virtual reality exhibition organised by Silicon Graphics in Delhi in end-December. There was Division exhibiting its dvs/dvise prototyping software and CIeMed peddling Brainscape, a 3D brain atlas-based neuro-imaging system.
Fastening the Division HMD, you can inspect a British submarine or run through the features of the Rover MGF sportscar. The company has just authored a system, a fully immersive, real-time VR experience, that lets clients roam through a bottling plant. Says Division’s Colin Christopher: “The experience is a bit like making the computer redundant. You are doing more than visualising your information. You are experiencing it. You understand information better because you are interacting directly with it, sometimes giving your own prototyping designs.”
Virtual prototyping, you learn, works just as well in allowing you to understand the design evolution of an automobile. Last year, Boeing rolled out its 777 commercial airliner, the first aircraft prototyped entirely in a computer. Learjet used Silicon Graphic workstations to design its Learjet 45, eliminating blueprints and hard prototypes altogether. The first aircraft flew perfectly on its maiden flight and was delivered to a waiting customer. At the Paris air show, Airbus was able to show visitors a virtual 500-seat, double-deck airliner, docked at an airport, all by looking into a Boom display. The visitors examined aisles, seating areas, flight deck and crew work areas.
While five years ago the term virtual reality evoked images of hippies with Macintoshes, counter-culturists in the forefront of cybersex and electronic drugs, the view today is less incendiary.
It’s the next revolution now, a coup within a coup, the spearhead of information technology. The psychic mangling of your neuro transmitters is big business. For instance, it helped Atlanta and Sydney secure their Olympic bids with the International Olympic Committee after a presentation involving virtual construction of the village sites.
And at the CIeMed stall, you can play neurosurgeon for as long as you want. You can fiddle around in a digital brain composed from Catscans with electronic scalpels and clamps. While CIeMed’s Brainscape is more for neurosurgery planning, taking a friendly view at the tumour, more advanced software allows you to recreate nasty medical conditions, letting doctors and students experience first-hand the complications that can arise in the operating the-atre. Coping with catastrophe in VR means the complication has been experienced and solved at least once. Sensory feedback through electromagnetic gloves make you feel the weight, inertia and friction of mock surgical tools. The tools can be tuned to feel crispy or mushy. Besides, practising surgery on a digital cadaver is cheaper and more humane than using animals.
VR applications themselves seem to be encroaching on wide-ranging domains, from military training to athletic performance analysis. PowerScene, a system developed by Cambridge Research Associates Inc. and powered by the Silion Graphics Onyx, was used by the US Air Force (USAF) for bombing missions at Bosnia from the Aviano airbase at Italy. F-16 pilots coming up at targets in Bosnia at the speed of sound had to take a strike-or-abort decision within a few seconds. Mission rehearsals on the virtual workstations allowed pilots to crosscheck data, check fli-ght coordinates and recognise targets faster. Says USAF
Brigadier General Charles Wad: “We didn’t have one guy from Aviano hit the wrong target.” A more political, but less known, solution provided by VR in the same region was helping Bosnia and Herzogovina draw their national borders.
In the near future, with sports bodies clamping down on performance enhancing drugs, VR might provide the new edge. Bio-Vision, a San Francisco-based company, collaborated with the San Francisco Giants’ baseball hitter Matt Williams. Prior to the 1994 season, Williams spent a month working with BioVision engineers to learn more about his own swing. Seven cameras tracked his swing, outputting a textured image of every movement. Consequently Williams gained invaluable insights into balance and weight transfer throughout his hand motion. Williams went on to display one of the greatest single-season performances in the history of baseball. BioVision engineers have also analysed drive swings of golfers like Arnold Palmer and John Daly. And one can imagine them working on Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara’s pull and cut shot. It might give cricket a new dimension.
Meanwhile, there is talk of virtual simulators for ground vehicles within the next two years. With compressing costs, simulators are getting within the reach of automobile markets. Says Stefan Hallin, president, Prosolvia Clarus: “In Europe 50 per cent of road fatalities are caused by 1 per cent of the trucks. Some countries have already made it mandatory for drivers to go through VR simulators.”
While VR comprises just 1 per cent of the trillion-dollar global information technology market, it’s poised to reach double digits in five years, with the impetus areas being maintenance, safety and disaster planning. Says Bob Bishop, chairman, Silicon Graphics World Trade Corporation: “This is just for starters. Once it picks up on the Internet, the numbers are going to explode.”
In India though, the numbers are still paltry. Last year, the market touched just Rs 85 crore in sales. Currently, the Indian branch of Silicon Graphics is working on providing clients a minimum entry work station priced at Rs 8 lakh.
Even as computers are becoming God and you are on way to achieving a sensory immersion in data that allows you to focus on it and not on a keyboard or mouse, you are coming closer to merging knowledge with wisdom. Perhaps, information becoming a near-real experience is as close to wisdom as the human race will ever get.