Virtual Reality Technology And Society
VIRTUAL REALITY TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY
Social Issues in Technology
July 24, 1994TABLE OF CONTENTS
ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .iii
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Definitions and Terms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Inspiration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
THE TECHNOLOGY BEHIND VIRTUAL REALITY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Video Display Devices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Audio Output Devices. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Tactile Response Devices. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Interactive Input Devices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Computers and Software. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
THE HISTORY OF VIRTUAL REALITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Virtual Reality in the Past . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Virtual Reality in the Present. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Virtual Reality in the Future . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL REALITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
New Rules of Behavior . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Adverse Effects . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
REFERENCES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
This paper addresses entertainment’s use of technology, specifically
the medium of virtual reality. The focus is to define virtual reality,
examine it’s components, survey the field, and consider it’s impact upon
society. Among the definitions included are those from the artist Myron
Krueger, the scholar Howard Rheingold, and the novelist William Gibson.
The technological components used in virtual reality systems include
the following: video display, audio input, tactile response, interactive
input, and the computer hardware and software. Although a complete
compilation of all the devices involved in this arena are beyond the scope
of the paper, a discussion of the general areas of equipment, along with
several examples of items and companies involved in the field will be
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Our survey of the virtual reality field will encompass views of past,
present and future forms of this medium and based upon the opinions of
those using it. By looking at where VR got it’s start we shall attempt to
understand it’s basic attraction. In examining VR in the present we will
consider the current state of the art and it’s usefulness. Finally, by
contemplating the future of VR, we’ll be probing the possible benefits that
this technology may hold to society.
In order for this new form of high technology to enter into the
mainstream of common society, it is important to address the social
implications involved. We will be addressing two common issues associated
with any new technology: new rules of behavior and adverse effects. By
showing two of the social implications of this technology, we will be
addressing some of the issues that must be confronted if this technology is
to be successfully incorporated into our society.
In this paper, we will address the ways in which entertainment
utilizes technology to explore beyond the boundaries of reality. In
particular, the medium of virtual reality, “an artificial world that
‘feels’ real, that responds to your every move much as the real world does
(Lavroff 1992, 7),” is examined. To achieve this end we will be looking at
the definitions of virtual reality, the technology behind virtual reality,
a survey of virtual reality, including it’s history, present state, and
future forms, and finally the impact of virtual reality on our society.
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY?
Definitions and Terms
There are many varying definitions and terms for virtual reality (VR),
all of which could be considered accurate within certain circles of
knowledge. Since the technology behind VR is still basically a new field,
there are a lot of researchers, authors, and columnists spewing out their
own theories behind VR. Naturally, everyone offers a new and “better”
definition–from Myron Krueger’s terminology which appeals more toward the
lay person up to the much more accurate and technical definition by Howard
Rheingold. Krueger defines VR as an “artificial reality.” His research
has an artistic and psychological slant and is thus reflected in the
“An artificial reality perceives a participant’s action in terms of
the body’s relationship to a graphic world and generates responses
that maintain the illusion that his actions are taking place within
that world” (Krueger 1991, 59).
In Krueger’s artificial reality, art and science become interrelated, and
the viewer interacts with and actually becomes part of the new simulated
On the other hand Rheingold dove more into what actually makes up
virtual reality. He states:
“that the idea of immersion (using stereoscopy, gaze-tracking, and
other technologies to create the illusion of being inside a computer
generated scene) is one of the two foundations of virtual reality
technology. The idea of navigation (creating a computer model of a
molecule or a city and enabling the user to move around, as if inside
it) is the other fundamental element” (Rheingold 1991, 202).
It is important to remember that these definitions are only two
authors view points. Artificial Reality is probably the most dated of any
definition (it was coined back in the mid- 1970s.) Since that time,
specific projects have been started and further terms have been thrown
around–virtual worlds, virtual cockpits, virtual environments, and virtual
workstations. Finally, in 1989, Jaron Lanier, CEO of VPL Research Inc.,
coined the term virtual reality to encompass all of the virtual projects
under a single phrase. This term refers (in general) to any three-
dimensional reality implemented with stereo viewing goggles and “data”
On another level, outside of actual research and development
atmospheres, a third term was coined by William Gibson, a popular cyberpunk
science-fiction writer of the ’80s (Churbuck 1990, 154). He used the term
cyberspace in his book Neuromancer in 1984 to refer to a single virtual
reality that could be experienced simultaneously by people worldwide:
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions
of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught
mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable
complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind,
clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
(Gibson 1984, 87).
THE TECHNOLOGY BEHIND VIRTUAL REALITY
Virtual reality is made possible primarily through technologies which
address the need to interface a person’s natural senses with the computer’s
representation of reality. Video display devices are used to provide input
to the visual senses. Audio output devices are utilized to engage the
audial senses. The sense of touch is provided through the use tactile
response devices. In order to interact with a virtual environment it is
then necessary to combine these devices along with interactive input
devices to synthesize the perceptual stimuli into a cohesive representation
of reality. This task is performed by the computer and it’s software.
Video Display Devices
Visual perception in Human beings results from combining the
information gathered by the eye with the visual cues that are interpreted
by the brain (Gleitman 1986, 179). By providing the visual senses with the
same type of information containing the desired visual cues, it becomes
possible to generate a virtual image that looks real. This is the
technique that is employed with today’s video display devices which include
video monitors and LCD goggles.
Currently, today’s computers, including those not used in virtual
reality, use video monitors to convey visual information to their users.
These monitors are technologically no different from the television and
rely upon the same basic components of a cathode ray tube and the
associated electronic circuitry to display an image. The only difference
is that a video monitor does not contain a television tuner and instead
receives it’s input from a computer that is connected to it.
The type of video output device that is used primarily for virtual
reality are liquid crystal display goggles, referred to as LCD goggles.
These resemble regular optic glasses, but do not use clear glass or plastic
lenses and were pioneered by Ivan Sutherland. Instead, these devices are
made with lenses that contain the same liquid crystal displays that are
used in common calculators. These devices made by companies like 3DTV
Corp. in San Rafael, CA, are available for $2,000 to $3,500. Images made
using these devices can be very convincing “utilizing lighting, and
coloration characteristics, to best maximize the 3D effectiveness of the
production (Ostman 1992, 13).
Audio Output Devices
The audio world also exists in three dimensions. “The inclusion of
sound to a virtual reality system adds an extra dimension of reality to the
environment” (Lavroff 1992, 28). An example of the sophisticated devices
available has been developed by Crystal River Engineering, Inc. in
Groveland, CA. Their headphone system called the Convolvotron uses 128+
processors to re-create a true three-dimensional aural environment. This
feat is accomplished by omnidirectionally recording music or sounds for
replay through the headphone system, thereby accurately reproducing the
necessary perceptual cues.
Tactile Response Devices
One of the newer technologies to be developed for virtual reality has
been that of tactile response devices. These are systems which allow
information about a virtual environment to be presented through the
participant’s sense of touch. Tactile response falls into two general
categories, tactile feedback and force feedback. Tactile feedback is
handled using tactile stimulating devices called tactors. Tactors are
small pieces of metal built into the fingers of special gloves and have the
capability to change their shape when a current is applied to them. By
using tactors, it is possible to simulate the feeling of touching an object
with your fingers even though no physical object exists. Xtensory, Inc. in
Scotts Valley, CA manufactures gloves of this type.
Force feedback devices have been created which are made up of a glove
with an exoskeleton. These devices change the amount of resistance applied
to the movement of the hand inside and thus can simulate the presence of a
solid or semi-solid object present in the hand. This technology is
relatively new and to date has not resulted in any commercially available
Interactive Input Devices
Once a virtual environment is presented by the computer to the user,
they will undoubtedly wish to interact with it. In order to do this there
must also be a way for the user to send information to the computer.
Methods being used to this end range from the normal computer keyboard to
The computer keyboard has been around for years and functions the same
way when being used to interact with a virtual environment. Devices such
as computer joysticks, trackballs, and hand gestures are now replacing the
keyboard because of the simplified way in which they are operated.
An interesting development for use in the three-dimensional world of
virtual reality was the three axes trackball. This device is similar to
conventional trackballs containing a billiard- sized ball which can be
rotated along the x and y axes, but adds the ability to be moved along the
Perhaps the most promising form of interactive input will be the
evolution of speech recognition systems. Limited success has been
accomplished in this area and continues to be pursued by many companies in
hopes of making access to virtual reality as easy as speaking to another
person. Devices such as these would consist primarily of a microphone that
could easily be incorporated into the headset containing the visual and
aural feedback devices. Another advantage to using speech recognition is
that it would allow the more awkward keyboards or joysticks to be
eliminated altogether, thus allowing a greater degree of freedom of
Computers and Software
Last, but not least, all of these different input and output systems
must be smoothly integrated. This is the job of the computer workstation.
Computer workstations used in the virtual reality field today have been
specifically designed to meet the enormous task of coordinating,
manipulating, and representing the various components mentioned before.
Computer application programs written to allow the presentation of graphic,
audio, and perceptual information allow the “user” to enter the virtual
world. The computer and it’s programs must then handle the input from the
user in order to realistically simulate their interaction with that
The computer hardware and software capable of implementing virtual
reality range from home computer systems costing around $5,000 to the
high-end Silicon Graphics, Inc. workstations costing over $100,000
(Newquist 1992, 95). Although the price of the computer hardware and
software has been one of the major factors prohibiting wide spread
availability of virtual reality technology, recent breakthroughs are
beginning to promise dramatically lower prices in the near future.
THE HISTORY OF VIRTUAL REALITY
Virtual Reality in the Past
Who first started developing virtual realities, and why? The answer
to that question takes us outside of computer technology. Computer
technologists were not the first people to think of providing realistic
artificial experiences. In the mid-1950s, the movie industry went through
a period of experimentation that introduced Cinerama and Cinemascope. In
1956, Morton Heilig invented an arcade-style attraction called Sensorama,
which still exists today (in Heilig’s backyard, under an old ragged tarp.)
You sit on a seat, grasp motorcycle handlebars, and hold your head up to
two stereo-mounted lenses. The seat and handlebars vibrate as you look at
a three-dimensional movie taken at eye level in Manhattan traffic. Wind
blows in your face at a velocity corresponding to your movement in the
scene. As you travel, the smell of exhaust fumes and the aroma of pizza
are present at appropriate moments. The idea behind Sensorama was to make
the ultimate film experience, but because it was never intended for
interaction, it is not true virtual reality as we define it today.
However, because Heilig’s idea was to immerse the viewer in a completely
synthetic experience it is widely accepted that this was the first
commercial attempt to use virtual reality (Welter 1990, 66). If this had
been a success, today we would probably have had arcade games that
surpassed anything imaginable.
In the field of computers, the first research was started in 1966 by
Tom Furness at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (Horn 1991, 57). He was
experimenting with an alternative for displaying information to a pilot
during combat situations. Furness continued development of the heads-up
type of display that allowed pilots to see graphic instruments on the
inside of their helmet visors. “Traditional” cockpit displays are mounted
below eye level, so the pilot must constantly glance down at the
instrumentation. During combat this is unacceptable.
It occurred to Furness that he could display computer graphic
representations of information outside the cockpit using the same type of
technology. In effect the first work on high-tech flight simulators was
begun. Furness depicted the three-dimensional graphic space through which
the pilot was flying. This display rendered graphic objects of enemy
missiles and enemy airspace. Pilots could look around in this space by
turning their heads. They found this system effective because the
visualization of the three-dimensional combat environment, previously
gained only through long experience, was now portrayed in a concrete way
that they could grasp very quickly (Krueger 1991, 120).
Much of this work was classified until 1983, and even then it was
unknown to the world for the most part. This technology was limited to the
cockpit environment and was far too expensive for general application.
In 1969, at the University of Utah, Ivan Sutherland, the father of
computer graphics, implemented a head-mounted display that generated two
stereoscopic images of a three- dimensional scene (Fisher, Tazelaar 1990,
219). These images were displayed on two tiny monitors, one for each eye.
These monitors were mounted on an apparatus suspended from the ceiling and
strapped to the viewer’s head.
As the viewer turned his head, he could look around a
three-dimensional graphic room. The movements of his head were detected by
the apparatus and were relayed to a computer, which generated an
appropriate view–the view that the person would see if he were in the
room, looking in that direction.
Virtual Reality in the Present
At the present time, mentioning VR will bring the movie Lawnmower Man
to mind. While the experiences portrayed in this movie are a far cry from
current VR technology, the movie does make a very good point: The most
exciting work being done in VR is entertainment related. Instead of simply
watching television or guiding a tiny animated figure through a computer
game, you can become part of the action–fighting opponents as a giant
mechanized robot, crashing a car in demolition derby, exploring in a world
of checkerboards and pterodactyls, and much more.
A new VR entertainment product is just appearing on the market.
Developed by Cyberstudio and marketed by Spectrum Holobtye, Virtuality
offers VR game simulations that are among the most realistic. These units
include headgear and related devices to give you a 3-D VR effect. Battle
Sphere, Legend Quest, Total Destruction, HERO, Dactyl Nightmare and EXOREX
are among the currently available “simulations.” They are becoming more
and more common at entertainment centers around the country.
This is just one new technology that is incorporating VR. Although,
Virtuality has a more “arcade” type of appeal, there are other
entertainment related applications of VR that are currently available or,
at least, that are on the drawing board.
Chicago’s Battletech Center is more along the lines of a theme park
and is a complete entertainment complex devoted to space warfare (Rheingold
1991, 373). For $7 you can have an experience of a lifetime. You learn
how to operate a giant mechanized robot called a Battlemech, which involves
responding to terrain changes, adjusting for heat dissipation, and laying
out battle strategy. What gives realism and challenge to the Battlemech
experience is the fact that you play against living opponents rather than
the algorithms of a computer program.
Battlemech and Virtuality appear to be only precursors of a flood of
VR options. VR theme rides and parks are being planned by Disney and
Universal Studios, and similar attractions may soon appear in Japan.
Again, remember that VR is still a very young field. The level of
sophistication of the systems involved is high, but progress is still being
made in the quality of the visual images– higher resolution, more colors,
faster display rates. As soon as the technology arrives, each of us will
be like explorers. As Jaron Lanier once said, “Sometimes I think we’ve
uncovered a new planet, but one that we are inventing instead of
discovering. …virtual reality is an adventure worth centuries” (Menzel
Virtual Reality in the Future
“Responsive technology will move ever closer to us, becoming the
standard interface through which we gain most of our experience” (Krueger
1983, 187). People from different countries could convene for a conference
without actually physically going any place. Shut-ins, the handicapped,
and the elderly could do things that most people take for granted–taking a
stroll through the park or a shopping trip at the mall. Our everyday
experiences could include exploring the far side of the moon, learning what
life as a dinosaur could have been like, or basking in the sun on the
“shores” of mars. Virtual reality offers a higher dimension of exploration
to both leisure and learning experiences.
THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL REALITY
Consider the following statement: “It is likely that artificial
reality will be the key metaphor of the immediate future-not just in
computer technology, but in intellectual discourse as well” (Krueger 1992,
262). Often, when a new trend is introduced into the social order, society
integrates it over time at a relatively slow pace. The automobile,
telephone, and television, are all examples of new technologies that came
into being, but were slow to be accepted. The same can not be said of the
newer technologies of integrated circuits and it’s offspring the computer.
With the discovery of integrated circuits and the vast number of uses for
them, society had little choice but to integrate them as quickly as
possible. The benefits were simply too large to ignore, the needs of our
new ways of life too great.
New Rules of Behavior
The problem with these new computer based areas of high-technology is
that the technology itself is evolving so rapidly that society is not
afforded as much time to assimilate as before. Instead new forms of
technology are thrust into the everyday lives of people and it becomes
almost an afterthought that they must interact with it. Society must
therefore learn to adapt faster than ever to an increasingly complex and
technologically oriented way of life. New forms of education must be
devised that will address the problems of specialization as well as the
ever expanding knowledge base. Luckily, the very technology that mandates
these changes may also be the means to achieve those lofty goals.
Currently, computer based training programs and computerized learning
systems are making new inroads into the problems of knowledge acquisition
and skill reorientation. Once the methods for further integrating the
human senses with the computer’s processing capabilities have been
developed, these benefits will become the basis for most educational
systems. It seems obvious that an improved access path to the human
consciousness through the use of computerized mechanisms will surely enable
advances in all manners of communication, education, and perception, than
Accompanying any new method of social interaction, of course, are
possible abuses or adverse effects. The advent of the television was
heralded by many as the downfall of Man’s pursuit of knowledge and his
capacity to communicate with others using traditional media. Since it’s
introduction, however, television has made many things possible that have
enriched and enhanced the educational and communication fields. But, this
technology was not without it’s problems. Many surveys have shown that if
improperly regulated, children can become addicted to television and have
suffered adverse effects. Based on the fact that VR involves a greater
degree of “user” immersion, VR’s adverse effects could be equally greater.
Consider that overexposure to television has been blamed for causing
intellectual degeneration and to some extent even physical problems such as
visual impairment. Overexposure to VR could result in similar effects, but
to a greater degree. Carried to the extreme, addiction to VR could lead to
the inability to distinguish VR from reality. Therefore, safeguards and
methods of averting potential ill effects such as these from becoming
widespread must be developed.
After examining the components of virtual reality and it’s nature, and
looking back at where it began, where it is now, and where it appears to be
heading, it must be re-emphasized that this is still a relatively young
technology. Only after we begin to refine the techniques and experience
the possibilities, will we be able to tell what VR means to mankind. But,
we are beginning to see glimpses of what can be done with this technology
as well as what it may provide to our society. Whether good or bad, this
technology is the next step in our societies quest for ever-higher forms of
science and methods of expression. It is for these reasons that the
technology must be carefully monitored and integrated into our social
system, and what better way to start than by using it in entertainment for
the enjoyment of all.
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