Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons: Virtually There
by William Van Winkle

      The Hindus have a word, maya, which loosely translated means illusion, and more specifically the illusory nature of the physical world we see around us. The only thing &quotreal" is God; all else is a fleeting, divine dream. The senses fool us. Reality is a construct of our conscious imaginations.
      Now, I remind you of my continuing dystopia premise, where all humans are linked by neural implants and exist in a half-physical, half-virtual universe. The central argument we’ve been exploring is why society would allow this scenario to develop. Money, as we’ve seen (C.S. July 1997), and potential health benefits (C.S. June 1997) are enticing. But now I give you a far more tantalizing reason: enhanced reality.
      A virtual reality (VR) interface is comprised of 3D viewing goggles and a &quotdataglove" through which the user manipulates the computer-generated environment. The essential drawback to VR is that it entirely removes the participant from the physical world. You can’t walk around. There are no scents or tastes. Even tactile feedback systems, which apply pressure to the skin from special gloves or suits, show no promise of becoming convincing. In order for this technology to become widely accepted, there must be a better way to blend real and virtual worlds.
      The better way is here.
      All you gamers, imagine: You’re in a forest clearing at twilight, fingers clamped around your laser rifle. Overhead, bats dive through the first faint stars. The smell of leaves is pungent. The evening is so quiet even the crickets seem afraid. Suddenly, a twig cracks under your foot and you dive for the ground, rolling. The spot where your head was two seconds ago erupts in a brilliant display of orange and purple. You see movement around a tree, bring your rifle around to bear. A shadowy figure pokes his torso out, and the form becomes rimmed with a flashing red glow, overlayed with green crosshairs. You squeeze a shot, see the sniper fly back, screaming, and fall to the ground. You smile smugly, only to hear a voice right behind you hiss, &quotDon’t move."
      Live or Memorex? The snipers are virtual. The leaves and twigs are real. The explosion is virtual. The bats and crickets are real, although both could be simulated with a little extra programming. You, the user, are wearing a computer built into your vest which feeds into a special helmet. A semi-transparent visor allows you to see both the real world and the computer-generated images which overlay it. Surround sound speakers are built into the ear guards of your helmet. This is called augmented reality (AR), and it may very well change the world.
      AR, still in its infancy, is already finding application in industrial fields. Boeing workers, guided by computer-generated instructions, use AR to assist in connecting the roughly 1,000 circuits that span from one aircraft section to another. In North Carolina, doctors are using AR to &quotsee through" a patient for better tumor biopsies. Even chroma-keying, the blue screen process weather forecasters use on TV, is a form of rudimentary AR.
      To those who think my little war scene above foolish, I have some foreshadowing for you. James Vallino of the University of Rochester is a strong voice in the fledgling AR field. His work hinges around developing stronger user interfaces, particularly with increasing display definition and computer tracking calibration. This is essential work to all AR applications, but not surprisingly some of his group’s funding comes from the U.S. military. I asked Vallino about his work’s proposed applications.
      &quotThe scenario portrayed to [the Defense Department] is for augmenting the view that ground forces have of a battlefield scene," he replied. &quotThe augmenting information is obtained from reconnaissance aircraft that can see the location of enemy units. This is then transferred to augmented reality displays being used by the ground troops."
      Perhaps the military will be first to see such &quotwearable" systems as not only an encumbrance, but a security threat. If AR equipment were &quotwet-wired", or built into, the body, troops potentially could be much more effective. (Unfortunately, a good example of this integration is to be found in the Terminator movies.)
      Now expand the advantages of such &quotwetware" AR beyond the military. The entertainment applications would be enormous (hence my fictitious example above). Black market development for sex programs alone, currently known as teledildonics, would be enough to drive certain sections of public demand. And from a business perspective, you would never again forget a client’s name, buying history, or any other detail because all the information you desire could be flashed directly to your brain from a facial recognition routine. It wouldn’t even be necessary for you to have met the person before. Consider the impression that could make. At last, campaigning politicians now have a real incentive to fund scientific development.
      Everyday applications? Mundane: You will never again lose a pet. Honing devices will direct you to their position. Education: Bored with studying American History? Turn you local boat docks into the Boston Tea Party or the neighborhood park into a Civil War battlefield. Art: Why travel to France to visit the contents of the Louvre when you can view them on your own wall, complete with English annotations? And just for giggles, your Little Leaguer can pitch, not on the school diamond, but in front of 30,000 at Fenway Park.
      It could happen. The technology is developing today. Next month, we’ll examine the last step toward my dystopia: body-to-computer integration. Because, you see, it’s already possible to control software with your mind. And if this technology is melded with AR, then reality may no longer be a divine illusion but a simple matter of programming.

William Van Winkle can be reached at