VIRTUAL REALITY RETURNS IN NEW GUISE: COLLABORATION

August 4, 2000

FEATURES & COMMENTARY

New Orleans, LA — Rick Lyman reports that Peter Braccio bent to look inside the work area of a three-dimensional printer, as though peering through an oven window. Inside, things were baking nicely.

A cube slowly slid back and forth along a track and each time it passed over the small model it was creating, the printer spewed a thin layer of wax in just the appropriate spots. Layer by layer, like sheets of phyllo dough on a streudel, the sculpture that had been designed on a nearby desktop computer gradually took shape.

All around the room, hundreds of people were hard at work – waiting their turn at the 3D printer or designing posters for an enormous printer that could disgorge canvas sheets as big as a garage door.

“This is some of these people’s only opportunity to play with some of this high-end equipment,” said Mr. Braccio, part of the volunteer staff helping put together this year’s Siggraph convention. Siggraph – derived from the show’s original name, Special Interest in Computer Graphics – is the most important annual gathering for computer graphics and interactive technologies, drawing everyone from industrial designers to serious video artists to Hollywood special-effects wizards.

The event, which ended its five-day run last Friday at the riverfront convention center here, is a trade show where the biggest names in the industry and many hopeful start-up companies unveil their newest products for computer animation, data compression, virtual reality, three-dimensional imaging and other high-technology tasks.

But besides showing what is currently available, the annual gathering also allows researchers to share prototypes from technologies that are just emerging – poised somewhere between pie-in-the-sky and pie-in-the-refrigerator.

Certainly, there was a sense at this year’s Siggraph that the time was ripe for three-dimensional, interactive animation on the Internet. And there was also a palpable feeling that many other technologies were pushing hard against their boundaries.

Two-dimensional technologies yearned to be three-dimensional, such as a figurine printer that 3D Systems was offering.

“We foresee the situation in the future where there will be a printer in the house, definitely,” said Marvyn Rudgley, 3D Systems’ director of product management. “I can’t say when. But there will be a time when, if you need a spare part, like the cover of a battery case on the back of a remote control, you will dial up a Web site, download the data and make it yourself at home.”

And then there were the three-dimensional technologies yearning to be four.

Holoscape, a project of Zebra Imaging and the University of Texas at Austin, was a series of what researchers called “digital holographic stereograms.” Instead of a two-dimensional picture contained within a frame, the images were three-dimensional holograms that appeared to protrude from the frame. More than that, the images changed as the viewer moved from side to side, like scenes from a 3D movie.

To a viewer standing in front of it, one 3D image appeared to be a husband and wife smiling sweetly. But as the viewer moved from left to right, the image sprang to life and the wife turned, hugged her husband and leaned her head on his shoulder.

One word on the lips of many people at the show was collaboration – devices and software designed to nudge people into working in a more collaborative way, either in cyberspace or at the office.

“If you’re around here long enough, you’ll get sick of hearing the word collaboration,” said Dan Wright, president of Fakespace Systems, a company that makes three-dimensional imaging devices for commercial and industrial uses.

The company was showing a concave monitor that looked like the inside of a steel hemisphere in whose cavity images assumed three-dimensional life. Another company, Elumens, was showing a similar monitor that allowed viewers to move through three-dimensional landscapes and architectural models.

Indeed, the Siggraph trade floor was peppered with virtual workbenches and virtual tunnels, all designed to allow several workers to experience an image – and interact with it – at the same time.

“You have to get people working together,” said Scott Ross, president of Digital Domain, one of Hollywood’s leading special-effects houses. Mr. Ross said he had long recognized that good ideas do not always bubble up unless people are forced to interact – especially computer people.

“Look, many of these people are conflict avoidant and don’t have great interpersonal skills,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons they gravitated to a career where they work with a computer.”

Another theme that seemed to envelop Siggraph this year was renewed interest in virtual reality – not so long ago a virtual dirty word because of its failure to deliver on the promises of the early 1990’s.

In particular, researchers seemed to be struggling with ways to throw off the cumbersome goggles and gloves that early virtual reality devices utilized.

“Let’s face it, immersive technologies have let us down,” said Robert Stone, scientific director at Muse Technologies. “At one time, people said, ‘Put on a headset and it’s a different world, your dreams can come true.’ Instead, you were always aware you had this thing on your head and some people came out feeling nauseous and disoriented.”

Virtual reality devices were in evidence on the Siggraph floor that allowed users to dispense with goggles and add some other senses for good measure.

The Tokyo Institute of Technology was showing a Virtual Rubik’s Cube. The user could insert his hands into an empty metal frame that contained rings with strings attached into which he could fit his fingers. A video monitor above the frame showed his hands and a three-dimensional cube that did not actually exist. As the user twisted and turned the imaginary cube, the tension on the strings was altered to give the user the sensation of manipulating the cube he could see twisting and turning on the monitor.

“Spatial sound is also becoming very popular,” Mr. Wright said. “As well as devices that include temperature cues and air-flow cues.” Anything to make the experience more vivid and real. “There is a joke in the industry that the French are working on a sense of smell,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s something the French would do.”

Ray Kurzweil, the convention’s keynote speaker and the author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” said he foresaw a world just a few decades away when computers would disappear, information would be displayed directly onto the retina and nano-tubes implanted at nerve endings would allow people to flip in and out of totally immersive and totally convincing virtual reality.

Such science-fiction peeks into the future are also a Siggraph staple, but there were tiny indications that the technology was at least moving in that direction.

“The world is not flat,” said David Hague, senior director of 3D technology at Immersion. “It’s not a two-dimensional computer screen. It’s real and it’s full of interesting things to experience. It’s full of things to experience with all of your senses.”

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