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The other Reality
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 11]

The popular image of Virtual Reality is associated with goggles, data gloves and even complete body gloves that detect your movement. For short, technology. Nevertheless the immersion in a virtual world can also be achieved at more conceptual but perhaps more effective levels.

The concept of immersion is fundamental in Virtual Reality. We could define it as the voluntary act to dismiss all the stimuli that indicate that the experience being presented isn't real and, therefore to monopolise all the concentration and attention of the involved person.

In order to obtain the immersion it is not necessary to have sophisticated technology. Who has not had the sensation of having been suspended in another world during hours after the reading of an exciting book?. The cinema or the theater makes, in many cases, that we are inside the play, although we know that it is not happening in fact.

The immersion can be obtained at different levels. From the immersion in the sensorial scope, replacing all the visual, tactile, olfactory stimuli, etc. by other virtual ones, to the purely conceptual level (for example, in a dream). Which one is most appropriate for the information visualization?.

The traditional concept of Virtual reality, i.e., the substitution of the sensorial stimuli requires an enormous capacity of computation and has the disadvantage that it isolates the user from the real surroundings. Although there are now some affordable systems they are not very extended outside the laboratory.

More interesting and practical it seems is the Augmented Reality. The idea consists of superposing onto the real world the information that we want to visualise. A typical case is the one of the Head Up Displays of the military aircraft. In it, all the necessary flight information is projected onto a transparent piece of glass that it is in the line of sight of the pilot. This way it allows us to follow simultaneously what happens outside of the airplane and to have all the data of the avionics without having to look anywhere else.

Another example is the project of guided surgery between the MIT and the Brigham Surgical Planning Lab. The objective aims to superpose in real time the 3d reconstruction of the internal structures of the patient on the live video image of the same one to perform the surgery with all the information literally at the fingertips.

If we continue going down in the scale of technological requirements we find the Multi User Dragons and Dungeons games by Internet, or MUDs. Here the only things needed are a PC and a connection to Internet. The game allows you to do all the typical things of the role videogames with the difference that many of the characters of the game are the virtual representation of authentic players with whom it's possible to dialogue, to interchange virtual objects, to create groups, etc.

Paradoxically, maybe these are the most immersive experiences, although in the sensorial scope the realism is very poor. In addition they produce a feeling of tele-presence, of being "there".

Experiences of relatively simple virtual reality, without great realism, are being used to alleviate the phobias in what is called Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy. The idea, promoted by Dr. Barbara O. Rothbaum of the Emory University School of Medicine and Dr Larry F. Hodges of the Georgia Tech consists of alleviating the states of anxiety associated to the phobias by means of the controlled exposition to a virtual substitute of the cause of the phobia. For example, by simulating a situation at high altitude, a bridge or an open elevator with sight to the outside, the patient can be gradually surpassing his/her fears, with no need to raise him/her in an elevator, a real bridge or an airplane. It seems that these type of therapies have a remarkable level of success.

After all the virtual experience (and probably the real one also) is not more than a mental experience. A very important aspect of the virtual reality. For those interested in it is worth consulting the online book "Virtual Environments In Clinical Psychology And Neuroscience" and the web site Psychology of Cyberspace.

But possibly the most remarkable change will come via the daily life. The Augmented Reality will probably materialise in the wearable computers, that will inform to us about what's lacking in our pockets, our pending appointments and will indicate the best way to come back to home. At least this is what pretends the i-Wear project of Starlab, sponsored by Levi's, Adidas and Courrèges, among other partners.

When Essilor, the world-wide leader of ophthalmic optics (for visual correction), joins to a company like Microoptical Corporation to create spectacles with informative lenses, i.e. lenses that allow to project the image of a computer, mobile phone or PDA as if it floated to a meter away, it means that the future of Augmented Reality is not so far away.

Meanwhile let's think that a better system of immersion in the virtual world still has not been invented than watching yourself at the mirror each morning. A world full of sensations.

Links of this issue:

http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/medical-vision/surgery/surgical_navigation.html  
http://directory.google.com/Top/Games/Internet/MUDs/Role_Playing_MUDs/  
http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/virtual/Phobia/phobia.html  
http://www.psicologia.net/pages/book2.htm  
http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html  
http://www.starlab.org/bits/intell_clothing/index.php3  
http://www.essilor.fr  
http://www.microopticalcorp.com  
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