New applications, technology expand world of virtual reality

Virtual reality once the domain of science fiction books and Hollywood blockbusters is becoming a more viable and increasingly affordable solution for many federal users.

The books and movies in fact have created remarkably high expectations for virtual reality. People outside the industry expect VR to drop them into a digitized world that is hard to distinguish from reality.

The remarkable part is that those expectations are not too far from the truth according to vendors. VR can put an operator behind the wheel of a speeding car boat or aircraft in perfect safety. It can allow a user to walk through a building that is still on the drawing board. And it can let a novice surgeon practice with dozens of phantom - and immortal - patients.

At one time the primary government application was battlefield simulation in which the Defense Department relied on powerful computers to process battle action and determine outcomes. But now agencies and departments such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are adopting VR for other jobs that may be too dangerous or just too costly to be performed in the real world.

Furthermore with the advent of faster computer chips and graphics boards desktop PCs have nearly enough processing power to generate virtual environments according to industry vendors creating the potential for even more widespread use.

Defining "Virtual"

Although the technology underlying VR applications continues to evolve the concept itself is fairly well-defined.

"Virtual reality is a simulation of reality that induces the subject to immerse himself to the extent that he believes that what he is doing has consequences " said Bill Purdy the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) program manager for TRW Inc.'s Space Park Facility Redondo Beach Calif.

The Army's Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command (Stricom) noted for its multiuser military training simulation believes a simulation must be "a real-time simulation that provides the...visual auditory and perceptual cues that are needed for the user to interact " said Traci Jones the lead systems engineer for individual combatant simulations at Stricom.

In many applications especially in DOD "the real thing is too expensive and too dangerous " said Philippe Collard the chief operating officer for simulation software vendor Virtual Prototypes Inc. Montreal.

For example training someone to operate an attack helicopter in a live test is expensive and can be dangerous depending on the conditions. A helicopter simulation by contrast can change day to night reduce an expensive flight to a few bucks for electricity and protect a novice pilot.

Additionally simulation exercises can be conducted repeatedly without increasing either cost or danger. In the case of the helicopter training for example "the pilot can crash 20 times in one day - if they're not gifted - and walk away " Collard said.

"To the best of my knowledge " said Col. Jim Godwin chief of staff at Stricom "no one has ever been killed in a trainer." That is not the case in real training missions where accidents can have fatal results.

Wider Applications

These concerns - cost safety and repeatability - have fostered a market for VR beyond the battlefield in Defense and civilian agencies. In DOD for example VR can be used to train mechanics to work with expensive equipment that may not be otherwise readily accessible.

"What if you don't have that engine you're learning to repair? And the cost of having an aircraft to train someone is substantially more than having a VR system " said John Leahy group manager of government affairs at DOD.

Safety is the major concern with the NADS project which is being developed by TRW for the University of Iowa's research into automotive safety in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

With NADS researchers can put drivers in realistic situations - such as avoiding children in the road or dealing with poor weather conditions - and test their reactions. The researchers hope the study of drivers' reactions can lead to improvements in vehicle and highway design and to the development of advanced safety systems.

"We need to put a driver in situations that are unsafe " Purdy said. "The amount of data on unsafe driving conditions is scant. With a simulator we can assure him that he is safe and then convince him that he is not."

Computer scientists at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center have been using 3-D graphical simulations to simulate complex system design work. For example Mike Pomykacz a computer scientist in the Virtual Environments and Advanced Visualization Laboratory created a virtual version of proposed air traffic display consoles for the agency's Display System Replacement project.

By navigating through the virtual environment an evaluation team was able to spot design flaws early in the development process.

For example the consoles originally were designed without paper flight strips. These were added later but it took a virtual walk-through to indicate that the strips blocked a view of one of the consoles Pomykacz said.

The facility also helped to prototype an airport in Turkey by simulating the proposed facility the surrounding area and potential weather conditions for real-time flight simulation tests. The FAA lab is strictly a high-end Silicon Graphics Inc. shop with simulations recently ported to SGI's Ultimate Reality processors.

In doing design work VR can reduce the cost of design and modeling said Jackie Fenn vice president and research director of advanced technologies at Gartner Group Burlington Mass. "If you create a virtual model first you catch virtual errors early " Fenn said. "Also you can explore things you couldn't explore even if you did a mock-up - move the windows around and see how it affects lighting...see these things in layman's terms rather than [through] a mathematical simulation."

Making PC Apps a Reality

Until now the market for VR also has been limited to agencies that can afford to buy the expensive hardware and software needed to run the applications. But that may be changing as high-quality 3-D graphics capability migrates to less expensive platforms.

Vendors such as Intergraph Corp. are claiming that Pentium Pro workstations can create a VR environment when augmented by the right 3-D graphics adapter boards. They promise VR for $20 000 to $30 000 compared with $100 000 to $1 million for some high-end equipment. High-end vendors however claim that such systems lack the fidelity that users need.

"At the high end of virtual reality you have simulation at the low end you have cubes triangles blocks and spheres that you move around " said John Murphy vice president of sales and marketing at simulation provider Coryphaeus Software. "At the high end that's an SGI computer. At the low end you're talking about a PC."

"You can get very good visualizations on a PC especially with a good graphics board " Gartner's Fenn said. "[But] you will always be able to do more with an SGI."

"Our business model has always been to develop at the very high end shrink it down in size and functionality and put it on the desktop " said Gary Havenstein the technical workstation manager for SGI's Federal Business Development Group. The company offers a couple of entry-level products for less than $10 000. But it would probably take about $40 000 to put together a system that would do what most people would consider virtual reality SGI said.

Mix and Match for Best Results

The measure of adequate performance varies from user to user. For example Sandia National Laboratories Albuquerque N.M. uses a mix of SGI machines and networked PCs to run training applications said Sharon Stansfield a senior member of Sandia's technical staff.

An Intel Corp. Pentium Pro with a graphics accelerator is more than able to handle the tasks Stansfield said. "People have talked about VR with blinders on because of the price point up to now it's kept a lot of people out " she said.

Decisions must be based on the specific application. For example "You need high fidelity for a gunner but it isn't required for maneuverability " Stricom's Godwin said.

Ultimately the emergence of low-cost solutions will force users to rethink the definition of VR. "Most people think of the immersive technology: head-mounted display and motion tracking maybe with gloves for feedback " Fenn said. "But VR includes a large range of technologies."

These include augmented reality in which the user projects virtual reality over a display desktop VR in which 3-D graphics and some glasses give the illusion of depth and projected VR in which the virtual world is projected against a view screen.

The Training Systems Division of the Navy's Naval Air Warfare Center is looking into this issue as part of its Virtual Environments and Training project in Orlando Fla. "We're trying to strip away the hype behind virtual environments " said Scott Davidson a software engineer at Management Systems and Training Technologies Arlington Va. which is working on the program.

The research sponsored by the Office of Naval Research is designed to measure how VR actually compares with standard desktops as a training tool. The results of the study - which involves tactical maneuvering - haven't been completed. But with about half of the subjects reviewed Davidson said the results are not encouraging for VR aficionados. "Currently we aren't seeing a lot of difference between the two technologies and we expected to " he said.

Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly N.J.

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At A Glance

Status: Virtual reality used widely for battlefield simulation now is being tapped for other applications in civilian and Defense agencies.

Issues: 3-D simulation software running on workstations or even PCs does not fit traditional ideas of VR but it may have the same benefits.

Outlook: Very good. As low-cost hardware becomes a viable platform for VR the market for VR applications should expand considerably.

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