The Writing Was On the Wall…

When did we first get a clue that VR might not fully live up to its promise? The National Academy of Science’s “Committee on Virtual Reality Research and Development” roster is a non-virtual who’s-who of the VR world circa 1994. They certainly “got it!”



WASHINGTON — Despite the enthusiasm surrounding virtual reality (VR) — three-dimensional computer-generated worlds with which people can interact — a substantial gap exists between the technology available today and the technology needed to bring virtual environments closer to reality, concludes a National Research Council committee in a new report.* If the federal government vigorously pursues a broad-based program of research on virtual environments, telerobotics, and augmented reality, it could lead to many cost-effective applications that will go well beyond those now available in the entertainment industry.

The committee concluded that the potential for practical uses of virtual reality is evident across a variety of fields, with four areas showing the most promise: training, hazardous operations, medicine and health care, and design, manufacturing, and marketing. Using virtual environment and telerobotics, one can or will be able to explore the ocean floor and outer space, try out products not yet manufactured, dig up a 10-ton container of hazardous waste, or take a canoe trip through the human circulatory system.
The extent to which current virtual-environment technology is actually being used in these fields is varied and limited, although significant research and development is taking place. “It is not yet clear how to choose the tasks that will eventually prove most appropriate for the application of [VR] technology,” the committee explained.
Furthermore, much research is needed to understand how people will interact with VR systems, how the systems will affect a person’s work performance, and what kinds of problems could arise from extensive use of VR systems.
“With the limited technology that is currently available, there is a trade-off between realistic images and real-time interactivity,” said committee chair Nathaniel I. Durlach, senior scientist in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In entertainment, which is serving as a massive informal test of VR and a major economic driving force, real-time interactivity is often emphasized at the expense of image quality.”
In general, it should not be assumed that virtual worlds always need to be realistic in order to be useful, the committee said. Realism constitutes a useful goal for stimulating the development of technology and is essential for some applications. However, there are many applications, for example in the area of training, where enhancement of special features may be more important than realism.

Improving VR technology will require changes in the computer hardware and software that generate virtual environments, the equipment a person wears to experience and interact with a virtual environment, and the telerobotics that extend a person’s ability to sense and work in remote and hazardous environments.
For software, the committee recommended that the federal government undertake a major unified research program. In addition to the development of a suitable operating system, the program should focus on how people interact with and navigate through virtual worlds and on models that define the form, appearance, and behavior of objects in these worlds. Real challenges exist in creating software that will provide images for all the human senses, the committee stressed.
Computer hardware probably will be developed through commercial market forces, if current trends continue, the committee concluded. However, “should serious lags in development occur, the government might then consider strategies for leveraging private sector development efforts,” the committee said.
The equipment that a person must wear, such as the head gear, gloves, and other devices used to receive information from a virtual world and to take action in that world also are in need of improvement. One concern is the discomfort and poor image quality of currently available head gear. The committee found that people using head gear often suffer from chronic fatigue, lack of initiative, drowsiness, and irritability or nausea when interacting with a virtual environment for long periods of time.
Although these symptoms are generally known to be associated with motion sickness, it is not yet possible to predict which of the various symptoms are likely to appear when an individual uses a VR system. Furthermore, it is not known how the magnitude of each of these symptoms depends on the characteristics of the systems themselves or on the characteristics of the individual using the system. “If the comfort of VR systems cannot be radically improved, the practical usage of these systems will be limited to emergency situations or to very short time periods,” the committee said. Also of concern is the need for substantial improvement in the devices that provide the user with the ability to feel and manipulate objects in the environment.
“Work in these areas is not only essential to the realization of practical applications, but it should also advance our basic understanding of the human organism,” the committee said.
In telerobotics, reductions in time delays between the human operator and the telerobot are needed, as are hardware improvements. In addition, problems involved in using microtelerobots for applications such as microsurgery need to be addressed.

Communication networks have the potential to transform virtual environments into shared worlds in which individuals, objects, and processes at different locations can interact. In the future, such networks will allow use of virtual environments for such purposes as virtual classrooms, group entertainment, and communication among robots in different locations.
Although the technology is becoming capable of supporting the development of virtual environments connected through networks, it currently cannot support applications — to multiple users in real time — in which sights, sounds, and touch are provided as they would be in real environments, the committee said. Other problems that need to be resolved are network slowdowns caused by the multiple layers of operating system software and the high cost of purchasing time on high-speed, wide-area networks.
The committee proposed “that the federal government provide funding for a program (to be conducted by industry and academia in collaboration) aimed at developing network standards that support the requirements for implementing distributed virtual environments on a large scale. Furthermore, we propose funding of an open virtual environment network that can be used by researchers, at a reasonable cost, to experiment with various virtual environment network software developments and applications.”

“Because the field is in its very early stages, the federal government has a rare and important opportunity to foster careful planning for its research and development,” the committee said. Among the committee’s suggestions:   A comprehensive national information system could be developed to provide    coverage of research activities and results on virtual environments in a    user-friendly way for a wide variety of users.   A small number of national research and development teams could be    established, each focusing on a specific application. The teams could be made    up of members from government, industry, and academia, and funding could    be provided jointly by both the federal government and the private sector.  Federal agencies and offices could consider experimenting with VR    technology in their own workplaces.   The federal government could also explore the opportunities for early    development of standards to promote compatibility of hardware, software,    and networking technology.
The committee’s work was funded by a consortium of federal agencies including the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Human Research and Engineering Directorate of the Army Research Laboratory, Crew Systems Directorate and the Human Resources Directorate of the Armstrong Laboratory, Army Natick RD&E Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, National Security Agency, and Sandia National Laboratory.
The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster is overleaf.

*Pre-publication copies of the report, Virtual Reality: Scientific and Technological
Challenges, are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the
letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $65.00
(prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy.
Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information at the
letterhead address (contacts listed above).

[Internet availability: This news release is available on the WorldWide Web at
http://www.nas.edu; via Gopher at gopher.nas.edu; and via FTP at ftp.nas.edu/pub/]

Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
and Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications
Board on Computer Science and Technology

Committee on Virtual Reality Research and Development

Nathaniel Durlach (chair)
Senior Scientist
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Steve Bryson
NASA-Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, Calif.

Norman Hackerman (1)
Chair, Scientific Advisory Board
Robert A. Welch Foundation

John M. Hollerbach
Professor of Computer Science
University of Utah
Salt Lake City

James R. Lackner
Riklis Professor of Physiology and
Director, Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory
Brandeis University
Waltham, Mass.

J. Michael Moshell
Associate Professor of Computer Science
Institute for Simulation and Training
University of Central Florida

Randy Pausch
Associate Professor of Computer Science
Department of Computer Science
University of Virginia

Richard W. Pew
Cognitive Sciences and Systems Department
Bolt, Beranek, and Newman Laboratories Inc.
Cambridge, Mass.

Warren Robinett
President and Founder
Virtual Reality Games Inc.
Chapel Hill, N.C.

Joseph Rosen
Associate Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center
Lebanon, N.H.

Mandayam A. Srinivasan
Principal Research Scientist
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

James J. Thomas
Technology Manager
Applied Physics Center
Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory
Richland, Wash.

Andries Van Dam
L. Herbert Ballou University Professor and
Professor of Computer Science
Computer Science Department
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Elizabeth Wenzel
Director, Spatial Auditory Displays Laboratory
Aerospace Human Factors Research Division
NASA-Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, Calif.

Andrew Witkin
Professor of Computer Science
School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University

Eugene Wong (2)
Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Development
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Hong Kong

Michael Zyda
Department of Computer Science
Naval Postgraduate School
Monterey, Calif.


Anne Mavor
Study Director

(1) Member, National Academy of Sciences
(2) Member, National Academy of Engineering


Office of News and Public Information
2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20418
(202) 334-2138

Date: Sept. 20, 1994
Contacts: Cheryl Greenhouse, Media Relations Associate, Richard Julian,
Media Relations Assistant
Telephone: ( 202) 334-2138
Email: news@nas.edu

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