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.