Overhyped and Underwhelming

What's happening to virtual reality?


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A few years ago virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier's vision for the medium he helped pioneer got a lot of people excited about the utopian potential for what seemed like some pretty wacky technology. But by now, most of those people have tuned out the vague promise of perpetual consensual hallucinations and come to terms with the somewhat slower pace of technological innovation. The fact is that technology cannot keep up with our dreams of what it should be able to do.

It's easy to understand how one might get the impression that Lanier's virtual reality was, if not right in your living room, then right around the corner. After all, the dreamweavers of television and the movies have the depiction of VR down to a science. Virtual reality runs rampant in television shows like Oliver Stone's Wild Palms miniseries, and movies like Lawnmower Man and this summer's Virtuosity -- not to mention the video and computer games that mimic VR's immersive, interactive environments. These entertainment shows portray VR as a ticket to a simulated reality more real than life itself.

The real reality, though, as Rogier van Bakel points out in the August issue of Wired, is that VR hasn't nearly kept pace with its popular media representations. 'The spellbinding qualities the evangelists of VR promised us are as 'elusive as vaporware,' he writes. 'Jerky screen motions, sluggish response times, and crude cartoonish graphics have buried the medium faster than you can say headmounted display.'

The fact is, the ONLY people who can afford to dabble in virtual reality are the creators of VR's popular image. Who else is willing or able to plunk down the $20,000 or so for a low-end VR system from Silicon Graphics, complete with computer, software and goggles? Unless you have access to high-end VR facilities that universities buy for $250,000, all you've got are some Nintendo power gloves and maybe a pair of goggles to plug into your video game machine. And that's only if you're willing to spend a modest $500-$1000.

Those who still hunger for a VR experience, however downscaled, will be happy to know that virtual reality is coming to the Net -- sans head-mounted displays, gloves and body-suits. Worlds Inc., a software company that specializes in Virtual Reality Modeling Language, is working with CompuServe on a 2-D 'virtual' environment called WorldsAway that will let you interact with other users via an onscreen avatar reminiscent of novelist Neil Stephenson's conception of cyberspace in Snow Crash. Don't be surprised, though, if the new technology is gobbled up by home shopping and other consumer applications. Worlds Inc. and Visa recently announced a new system that will allow member banks to create three dimensional, online 'branches.' Virtual shopping malls, where retailers are able to enter the Internet market place with virtual representations of their stores, won't be far behind.

Original to Utne Reader Online, August 1995.

Rogier van Bakel, WIRED,'Getting Real: VR Grows Up,' (Aug. 1995 ).