Pallab Ghosh considers the computer-generated world of Virtual Reality, an attempt to create a closer relationship between Man and machine.
'What lies at the heart of every living thing is not fire, not warm breath, not a "spark of life". It is information, words, instructions.' This chilling thought is that of one of the country's foremost evolutionary biologists, Professor Richard Dawkins of New College Oxford. Writing in his book, The Blind Watchmaker, he suggests that if you want to understand life, 'don't think about fires, sparks and breath, think about information technology.' Since these words were written, technological developments have turned that thought on its head: if you want to understand information technology, you have to think about life.
Life and its relationship with computers is the focus of an emerging field in computer science known as human computer interface (HCI). But while Dawkins ponders on the similarities between genetic and electronic information, those involved in HCI consider their differences. The aim is to create a harmonious union between Man and machine so that human desire is translated effortlessly into electronic action. A step toward that possibility is to make computers easier to use. Computer programmes are now better designed, using sound, graphics and text to steer people through even the most complex application. Despite its success HCI has, until now, been a relatively low key field of research. This year a dramatic development in the field of HCI, known as Virtual Reality (VR), has burst onto the scene. Virtual Reality is in effect a world generated by computer. It invites the traveller, as those experiencing VR are known, to step through the computer screen, like Alice through the looking glass, into a three-dimensional computer graphics world where everything is possible.
The effect is achieved using two tiny computer screens in front of each eye, each with a slightly different view of a scene, giving the illusion of stereoscopic vision. And sensors attached to the traveller pass on movement to the computer, which changes the screen graphics accordingly, giving the illusion of moving in that world. Look up and you see sky, move forward and fall off a computer-generated cliff.
People are already exploring this software-created world- cyberspace, as science fictionwriters have dubbed it. Young people play arcade games in it, Nasa astronauts practise space walks in it and US soldiers fight mock tank battles in it.
Inevitably, the thoughts of some writers have turned to more imaginative uses of the technology. In his book, Virtual Reality, Howard Reingold speculates on the potential for people kitted up in sensitised body suits taking part in intercontinental sex orgies and the use of Virtual Reality systems as a substitute for hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. But while the prospect of Cybersex and drugs makes good copy for the media, it is not necessarily good publicity for Virtual Reality. The recent coverage of the technology draws attention away from the fact that it is possibly one of the most important developments in information technology. Virtual Reality represents the future of computing.
One application that gives an indication of the potential of the technology is in the finance sector where dealers have to instantaneously calculate relationships between a wide variety of information coming from different sources. A US company, Precision Visuals, has devised a system known as PV-Wave that represents a range of financial information in the form of a three-dimensional graph. The result is similar to a landscape, which continually changes as new financial information pours into the system.
The experienced user can choose the best moment to buy or sell depending on the shape of the landscape, rather than relying solely on one variable such as price. Barclays and the United Bank of Kuwait are among the system's users.
PV-Wave is not a Virtual Reality system, but its three-dimensional nature lends itself to VR perfectly. Dealers actually on the landscape would be closer to its subtle shifts and changes. And perhaps they would share this landscape with other dealers logged in from the world's international money markets, all fighting it out in some real life high finance video game.
Such thoughts are at this stage speculative. But what is certain is that virtual reality will create a more intimate relationship between human beings and computers. According to Rheingold, 'Virtual reality represents a new kind of contract between humans and computers, one that could grant us great power, and,' he says cryptically, 'perhaps change us irrevocably in that process.'
Pallab Ghosh is a science and technology writer.