What is VR good for?

by Miriam English

I personally think that VR will prove to be mankind's greatest invention since fire. Am I overstating the case for VR? I don't think so. I have a long list of uses for VR that show it will be one of mankind's most useful tools, but there is one use that will transform the way we see ourselves and how we see the world. It could help heal the planet and allow humans to finally outgrow their petulant childhood, blossoming into mature citizens of the universe. What is it? You will have to read on won't you. :-)

First off, a very quick definition of Virtual Reality.

This makes it sound like VR is only good for entertainment, but I will show shortly that that isn't so.

Now, a very quick outline of the technology today, and what is on the way.


The headgear most people associate with VR will disappear or shrink to almost nothing in the future. People simply do not like to wear large clumsy devices. You will see VR using either something like ordinary spectacles (but likely much smaller) that project the images directly into the eye; or something more like Star Trek's holodeck, where the images appear around you without requiring you to wear any equipment. The tiny headgear is almost here now. The holodeck exists only as special rooms called CAVEs (Computer Aided Virtual Environment) in a few places around the world. The walls are simply large, projection screens. (There is actually another route to VR, but I don't think people will be making direct connections to their brains for a few decades yet, unless someone can come up with a non-invasive method.)

At the moment most VR is just seen as a picture on a computer screen and viewed without any special devices. Many people do not think of this as VR, but it is, and it is the most rapidly growing form.


Other people seeing you

In a shared, "multi-user" world, the other people need to be able to see you, and you need to be able to see them. The body you "wear" in VR is called an avatar.

Avatars are just models like the rest of the virtual world is and are created in exactly the same way. You need to be able to make the avatar move, do things and express body language.

Currently, navigating the world is generally accomplished by moving a mouse or pressing the arrow keys on your keyboard. Giving the avatar body movements has been done using cumbersome and expensive gloves and suits, or using the keyboard or mouse to trigger painstakingly pre-programmed, standard actions (walk, run, wave, etc.); however some people are developing computers with eyes which intelligently interpret your actions and move your avatar accordingly. My bet is that this is how we will communicate our actions in VR in the future.

Senses other than vision

Hearing is probably the most forgotten sense, yet the easiest to provide for. There have been some remarkable advances in being able to place the user inside a soundscape.

Heat and cold may be surprisingly simple to reproduce.

Limb movement, touch, and balance, are very difficult problems to solve, and apart from some fairly unsatisfactory gloves with vibrating pads in them, moving platforms or seats, devices which use a current to stimulate your semicircular canals, and robotic actuators which resist your actions, nobody has come close to affordable, robust, effective solutions to these. For the moment we just have to use the fact that most of the cues we take from the world are visual and auditory.

The sense of smell is an odd one. There have already been Smellorama movies and you may have seen (smelled?) a scratchit book. In the 1960's Morton Heilig designed and built the Sensorama, an arcade size virtual reality machine which included smell with 3D vision, stereo sound, and vibration to give a sense of movement, but he was never able to get financial backing. Apparently there are only 7 distinct odours (camphoraceous, musky, floral, pepperminty, ether-like, pungent, putrid) that mix to produce the spectrum of smells -- it should be fairly easy to mechanize...

I think most of these other senses will have to await direct brain stimulation.

OK, on to the main part of the talk:

There are many important uses for Virtual Reality -- 3 of them will, in my opinion have a major effect on human society. I will leave those more radical uses to last.

* Number data models -- 3D models are often the only way to get a handle on abstract numeric data. Business people, researchers, statisticians, mathematicians, engineers, all need to be able to interpret what often are large, complex number sets, and our brains are marvellously adapted to interpret 3D visual patterns.

* Seeing the very small, or invisible -- Research chemists, molecular biologists, particle physicists all need to be able visualise and understand things which are impossible to see, either because they are too small or are invisible fields. VR can help by letting people "see" and "touch" them. Interaction through touch has been accomplished using force-feedback VR devices.

* Designing new products (e.g. cars) in VR makes the same kind of sense that writing using a wordprocessor does; making changes is straightforward, and you can view the final result no matter how big it is before committing to producing the finished, solid product.

* Seeing the past -- VR is also used to visualise things that no longer exist, like archeological ruins, or the layout of a modern city a hundred years ago. There have lately been some films that bring 3d models into use in exploring what the dinosaurs looked like and how they acted. And I am sure VR could be of use in visualising more recent puzzles of the past for forensic science too.

* Commerce -- Shops don't have to worry about customers damaging or soiling goods, or stealing them. Rentals in VR are way lower than they ever could be in real space. Customers can examine the objects they wish to buy without leaving home, and may interact with the shop assistant in a way they are unlikely to in forms on a web page. Shopping in the real world is often something of a social experience, as many people prefer to go shopping with a friend. VR makes this possible too.

* Funerals -- It may be possible to visit your loved one after they have died if they have had their likeness and personality saved to a 3d image. It would not suit everybody of course, but some part of a person's knowledge and personality living on after death would be attractive to some.

* Workplace -- Using VR you may no longer need to work in a local company. The office you work in may be inhabited by people from anywhere on the planet. When VR really hits its stride you may be able to work with or for somebody regardless of where you live. If you live in an area where there is no employment, then no problem, in VR everywhere is close. I work for myself from home over the internet right now. I don't have to get dressed for work in the morning if I don't want to, and I don't need to travel to and from work. This saves me a lot of money and time. Soon I hope to be able to do much of my business in VR. Of course nothing will ever replace real, face-to-face contact with people, but when I do meet people face-to-face I prefer it to be for pleasure rather than being thrust into the company of people when I'm tired or under pressure.

* Party -- Throwing a masquerade party in VR would be unlike any normal party. You wouldn't be limited to donning a costume; you could come as an elephant, a mouse, Wonder Woman (with the ability to fly), an alien, a machine, a cloud, a jar of yoghurt, or anything you might design. And no-one can hurt you in VR. (I will be talking more about the social aspects of VR tomorrow at 1pm here.)

* Exhibitions held in VR have distinct advantages over those in the real world. There is no physical limitation on the size of a VR world. If you want to display a building you have designed, it is as easy as if you wanted to show a small gallery of pictures. The rental of space is likely to be measured in fractions of dollars per hour instead of thousands. Visitors are not only those who were able to be in town that day; they can come instantly from all over the world. Sculptures in VR don't even have to obey the law of gravity -- or any other natural laws if you so desire. They can move through each other, and even grow and reproduce like living things. 

* Conferences in VR can enable people to do things which are impossible in reality. For example, in the real world, if someone is demonstrating something then only a couple of people could see that thing from the demonstrator's angle -- by looking over their shoulder. In VR it can be arranged that a crowd standing around the object all see the object from the same angle as the person demonstrating it -- totally impossible in the real world! Also people are not restricted to just floor space; they can quite happily float in the air.

Avatars 98 Conference
[Note that Avatars2000 is on the 14th-15th -- see  http://www.ccon.org/ ]

VRML99 Conference

* Film and stage storyboards & set design -- Film and stage directors can use VR to storyboard their productions in an easily manipulated and interactive way. Sets built in VR would allow crew, set constructors, and camera to walk through the action together without even having to be in the same country! Scenes can be recorded to be played back on a laptop anytime later, either replacing or extending the storyboard.

* Distance-education -- VR would allow schools to add immediacy to distance-education. At present a very few lucky people are able to use video conferencing occasionally, but this requires special, expensive equipment. VR will work on any reasonably fast computer over a normal phone line using an ordinary modem. There are a few people currently exploring the possibilities for teaching through the use of VR. Steve Guynup has come up with some wonderful ideas for using VR for delivering talks. He changes the avatar into an illustration of the talk, so that the speaker becomes a picture or a 3d model of the subect under discussion. Each member of the audience can use the model independantly so that interaction is not limited to the few extroverts in the audience.

Steve Guynup's demonstration of a lecture on comets where he turned his avatar into various 
illustrations of concepts related to the subject of the talk. Here he has turned himself into a 
model of the Solar System that the audience can manipulate so that they can see how the tail 
of the comet is blown by the solar wind and so always points away from the sun. Each viewer 
appears to them to have total control of the model. This means that interaction is not limited 
to the extroverts in the audience.

* Medical -- Some doctors are already beginning to use simple VR to view things like 3D CAT scans of patients. VR might be particularly useful in consultations if patient and doctor(s) are separated by great distance. There has been some use of VR in helping people overcome phobias, particularly acrophobia (fear of heights). It would be useful for other phobias like arachniphobia and agoraphobia. The idea, of course, is to desensitise a person to the object of their irrational fear through gradually increasing their exposure to it in a safe environment.

* Special events -- Rehearsing various aspects of special public events is made easier using VR. Security, VIPs, televising and filming, crowd handling, can all be safely rehearsed without requiring the real venue.

* Architects and engineers have been using VR for some time now to allow them to walk potential customers through as-yet-unbuilt structures. This gives customers more control over the design of what they are buying. The designers benefit by having more satisfied customers.

* Game players (this is actually the application most people initially think of). They can have worlds which would combine the visual immediacy of arcade games with the intellectual and social challenge of MUDs and MOOs. (Unfortunately, until more women get involved in the design and sale of these they may just be more of the same old killing games.)

* Advertising on the internet, in the form of banner ads, can be made much more interesting while making them download faster. Many people consider advertisements on the net to be an annoyance, ignoring the fact that very often it is these ads which pay for the pages or search engines that we use. An animated gif banner ad can quite easily be 10k bytes in size. That will just be a simple two- or three-frame picture. Linda Hahner and her company Out Of The Blue have pioneered the use of banner ads which are little virtual worlds playing a short movie lasting minutes. Most surprising is that their file size is no larger than a 2 or 3 frame animated gif!

9k, 20 second VRML banner ad by Out Of The Blue http://www.outoftheblue.com (You will need a VRML plugin in your web browser to see this.)

9k, 3 frame animated gif

* 3d art -- Of course the new art forms of World Building and avatar sculpting, just now appearing, will grow, and proud artists will display their latest creations for all to explore.

As with all new fields, this work will be certain to open up unexpected vistas of human endeavour... and to support them, many new industries are bound to spring up.


Finally the big 3 future applications of VR:


Not long ago everybody thought the next generation of telephone would be the videophone. Much more useful, in my opinion, is VR.

You have just got out of the shower to answer the phone. You stand there -- naked, and dripping wet -- talking into the microphone, glad it does not transmit pictures. It sends a description of your gestures and expressions so that the computer at the other end is able to reflect your actions in a 3D image of your choice. The other person sees you as you would have them see you. You can have any shape, whether you are wheelchair-bound or able-bodied, regardless of your appearance, and whatever your skin colour.

If I had just got out of the shower, or stumbled out of bed I would not be switching on the video part of a videophone. However I would have no such problem with a VR phone because the person on the other end sees what I am comfortable with them seeing.

There is another aspect of communicating through VR that is not generally considered. If we have direct brain connection then we will need to have our own personal computer understand how our own brain is laid out, because each person's brain is like a fingerprint -- each is different. If my computer recognises how my brain understands some concept, and your computer can do the same, then they can talk to each other and mediate, allowing us to pass the entire concept from one person to the other. No need for lengthy, painfully detailed explanations, hoping the other person "gets it". No careful outlining of the ramifications. The other person receives the whole concept with all the parts, entire, in an instant. Telepathy, which has been yearned for over thousands of years, finally becomes a real possibility. This would never obsolete words of course; as symbols for manipulating concepts they are unsurpassed, but used alongside language such mediated telepathy would be invaluable.

VR Fiction

Theatre in VR. Virtual theatre opens up a wealth of possibilities! Leaving aside the actors and their capability to easily take on any form desired, let us consider the audience for a minute. They are no longer sitting in rows of seats. They may wander about, through the action. They need not have bodies at all, though out of respect to the actors they might become little points of light so that the actors may still be able to play to their audience. And the sets! They can be whole worlds. Some stories may become more open-ended where the audience is able to take part in the action. How would one write such a story? What are the 3D equivalents for cuts, pans, and dissolves? My talk on Sunday examines this subject more closely.

VR life

Lastly the greatest application of VR -- the one which will let people grow up at last and possibly save the planet from us.

I see VR as the biggest step for humans since fire. Most people have no idea of the incredible possibilities which currently lie just beyond our reach. They see shopping potential, and a new advertising and entertainment medium. I am not belittling those -- they are the paths that will take us where we are going... but VR reaches way, way beyond those.

What I am about to say will sound really out there to some of you, but whether you want to believe it or not it is happening anyway. There are many people around the world who want this to happen. It will happen. It is a question of "when", not "if".

Speed of computers that cost a $1000 graphed by year.
(Adapted from the article "The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine" by Ray Kurzweil in the special issue of Scientific American in Fall 1999 titled "Your Bionic Future".)

In about the next 20 years, if there are no major advances, it is expected that cheap desktop computers will have processing power roughly equivalent to a human brain. I believe that around then we will have computers capable of modeling a human brain. If the technology for scanning brains has advanced to the point of being able to resolve down to the level of the synaptic vescicles in individual nerves then we will be able to use a real brain's structure as the source for modeling. That means that we will be able to rebuild a person's mind inside a computer.

Would you like to live a couple of hundred years? ...a couple of thousand? ...a million? or even more? We will never do it in these bodies. Unfortunately, replacement biological bodies are not likely to be satisfactory for a long time and the prospect of mechanical bodies is even further off. But there is a simpler, and in some ways even more wondrous future open to us in VR.

If we are already inside the machine then interfacing us with VR is dead simple. We could see, hear, touch, smell, taste the worlds. We are currently physically restricted to a single fragile planet, with viable space travel receding ever further into the future, but in VR we will have an infinity of universes to explore. Exploiting artificial life and chaos, these worlds could be even more novel and unexpected than the real world around us.

The first to understand the implications of such an existence would be the old, the ill, and the disabled. No longer having to battle to feed, clothe, or house themselves, they can spend their time learning and improving and entertaining themselves. If your mind is accessible to you, you can fix things that don't work properly... or augment things that don't work as well as you would like.

Most people are smart and creative if given a chance to let loose. Imagine what the human race could do if all that potential was realised. And freeing us from having to worry about where the next meal is coming from and how to pay for the roof over our heads would be an incredible breakthrough.

As people come to realise that life in VR can be brilliant, more and more people will opt to live there. At first they will have a foot in both worlds so to speak, but biological people die and their minds will continue to live on in VR. It won't take long for the people in VR to outnumber those in real life. After a while people will wonder why they should bother struggling to make ends meet in the physical world when they can enter VR and live like gods.

At some point we will have the first people who decide that suicide of their physical bodies is a useful way to cut their losses. It will not be popular at first, but depending on the security of the computers used for storing people's minds I expect people will come to accept it and migrate en-masse.

I expect that within a few generations VR would be sufficiently attractive that much of the world's population would move into it. (Projections put the production of a $1,000 computer equalling the processing power of all the human minds on the planet at less than 60 years away [Ray Kurzweil -- see his book "The Age of Spiritual Machines"]) It won't take long for the Earth's population to drop precipitously.

Of course there will always be those who elect to remain 'outside' in the real world but even they will be able to use VR... in fact many of them will need to in order to communicate with loved ones and the major knowledge base of our civilization. The problems of non-invasively interfacing directly with the human brain will be solved soon, so they will be able to experience virtual worlds just as strongly as those who live inside VR.

Most work would be done in VR -- truly an information economy. Massive crops for food production would no longer be needed and the terrible human grip on the resources of our delicate planet would be released. Earth would be allowed to flower again and we would be masters of our own destiny.

Greed becomes meaningless when you can have universes; it is difficult to discriminate against people who can wear any kind of body they want; and nobody can harm you in VR.  >Poof!<  There go three major causes of disaffection.

Combine these:

The planet should get healthy again pretty quickly.

We live at the most interesting time in human history so far, but it ain't nuthin' compared to what is coming.

I think all the rules of life will change in the next few decades.


Some other, related thoughts:

It would be crazy to put your mind in your physical body if it is possible to control it remotely. If the body meets a sticky end (e.g. a violent encounter with the front of a truck while crossing a freeway), then all is not lost. You just start up another body. But non-biological bodies are unlikely to have the speed, power and energy efficiency of a biological body any time soon. Biological bodies can move incredibly quickly with great poise and precision, and do it on a handful of grain and a few litres of water for a day. Current motors are so pitiful that you would have to view the world thru a body tethered to a power outlet, or as weak as a butterfly, or with the speed of a sloth. I expect it to remain this way for some decades... though of course who knows what discoveries lie in wait for us, just around the corner. But even when reasonable non-biological bodies are developed, they will still have the same problem that biological ones do: they will cost lots because of their consumption of physical resources. So only a priveleged minority will ever be able to make use of them.

No matter what happens VR will proceed apace. Opting to use VR spaces rather than the resource-hungry bodies mentioned earlier is much simpler. And it is only for the next decade or so that I see many people designing VR... after that I think that although a few artists will still create VR, most VR will will create itself according to simple rules, akin to the way cellular automata grow. So the VR option will be infinitely simpler to adopt.

Some people will almost certainly make a career of couch potato, but most people actually want to do things, and all this will make it easier to do it. Most people are smart and creative if given a chance to let loose. Imagine what we could do as a race if all that potential was realised. And freeing us from having to worry about where the next meal is coming from and how to pay for the roof over our heads would be an incredible breakthrough.

Living inside VR will be completely safe. It may be possible in the future to hurt people in VR but I think it will resemble S&M rather than assault. In S&M it is a cooperative effort -- the masochist allows the sadist to hurt them because it is titillating. So, in VR the only time people will be hurt will be when they have consented to it. I think that in order to eliminate danger, the Java style of security model will be used with both modeled brains and biological direct-connected brains.  How many people are likely to commit to possibly thousands of years in a potential hell? They will naturally want safeguards... and they will get them.

There are only 2 real dangers I can see:

Most production requires physical resources to create things. Information is different. If you want the source code for something I have written I can give it to you and it costs me little or nothing to do so. The physical resources consumed are negligible but the information, the wealth, is almost instantaneously doubled. This kind of economics has never been possible before in all human history.

At the moment we have to pay others to let us live... for the roofs over our heads, for the food we eat, for the power we use. And so long as this servitude exists we will always struggle. A thousand years ago people didn't have the problems we have now, nor do we have the problems they had. We are much better off in so many ways, but I believe that any individual doesn't feel much more happy with their lot than one a thousand years back. So it will be in the near future. We will not have unlimited free food and energy because it is in some people's interests to keep those things scarce and costly. Computer programs could be free but they are not. Things have been structured so that we who create programs must sell them to survive. They could be easily copied for free and distributed widely to one and all, but such practise is made illegal. This is the data equivalent of the replicator in Star Trek which made money obsolete. No. If somebody ever develops a replicator, its use will be closely monitored and people will have to pay per use. Servitude is so heavily ingrained in us that it won't disappear for centuries... except in VR. Hopefully you will no longer need to pay to live in there. Somebody will need to pay for the power bill, and probably the storage space... and perhaps for guards, but hopefully this will be subsidised by the mindworks created by such a rich VR society.