- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Today, a blue-sky column. Virtual reality. The phrase is often used but seldom defined. I’m using it here to mean the creation, through computers and allied technologies, of an entire physical setting — a backyard garden, for example.

Can we, by putting a subject in a helmet with headphones, and little TV screens instead of lenses, and microphones to play any sounds we choose, make him believe that he is in a garden? So that, although he is actually in the middle of, say, an empty gymnasium, he can smell the roses, walk through the flowers and feel the trees?

No. Not even close. Not for a long time, which in technology means anything beyond 15 years. That’s why this is a blue-sky column.

The fascinating thing, though, is that it could be done today — clunkily, unconvincingly and expensively — but done. No breakthrough in basic science is needed. Lots of companies are working on pieces of the puzzle, though for purposes of solving other problems.

For example, it could be used to teach surgery on nonexistent patients, so the student can see and feel the operation without endangering a real patient. Or to let an architect walk though a building he has designed but not built, to see what the visual effect would be. And, of course, for computer games, a major driver of such research.

Start with vision. How do you make it appear to Joe Smith, our virtual-reality guinea pig, that he is in a garden when in fact he is in a gym?

You give him goggles with tiny TV screens in front of his eyes. (This has been done, clunkily, and it works, clunkily.) Each, under computer control, shows the “garden,” but from slightly different angles, which allows depth perception in humans.

The goggles have position sensors that tell which way Joe is looking and where he is in the gymnasium. When he turns his head to the right, the computer knows that he should see, say, a fountain. It then puts the fountain on the little screens. Wherever he looks, he sees whatever he would see were he in the garden.

Touch is harder. Much harder. How can you let Joe — who is standing in an empty gymnasium with a funny helmet on — believe that he is feeling a tree trunk?

As a beginning, you put him in gloves with little motors and rods that can adjust the effort needed to bend the joints of the fingers. The computer knows (via a three-dimensional coordinate system) where the tree trunk “is.” When the computer knows from the position sensors in the gloves that Joe has his fingers around the nonexistent trunk, it “freezes” the joints so he can’t close his fingers.

This is how it works with real trees: You can’t close your fingers through them. Combine the visual cue of seeing the trunk between his fingers, and what feels like the resistance of a hard trunk, and you get a sense, sort of, of reality.

For a lot of reasons, making this work convincingly is an absolute bear of an engineering problem and some things, like letting Joe bump into a “wall” might not be doable short of vast complication. In theory, it’s doable.

Sound isn’t hard. The computer has on its hard drive all the sounds of the garden — the fountain splashing, for example. As Joe in the nonexistent garden approaches the fountain, the computer makes the sound louder in the headphones. It also makes the changes in time-of-arrival to cause Joe to hear the fountain in the right place.

How to make Joe smell the roses? People have been thinking about this. A company called DigiScents came up with a solution unfortunately called ISmell. The Web site HowStuffWorks.com explains it nicely: “DigiScents has indexed thousands of smells based on their chemical structure and their place on the scent spectrum. Each scent is then coded and digitized into a small file. The digital file is embedded in Web content or e-mail. A user requests or triggers the file by clicking a mouse or opening an e-mail. A small amount of the aroma is emitted by the device in the direct vicinity of the user.”

The gadget used a cartridge of 128 “primary” scents that it mixes to produce a desired scent.

It isn’t here yet, but I say it’s sneaking up. Aside from practical uses, it would be amazing to be able to walk through a European cathedral without leaving home.

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