New Internationalist


Issue 264

Virtual virtues
Is 'vIrtual reality' an electronic narcotic for computer-addicts - or a door to reality?
William Kelly and Patrick Kinsella look at it from the point of view of disabled people.

PHOTOMONTAGE: ALAN HUGHES Virtual Reality is based on the fact that humans do not directly experience reality. What we receive is information through the senses which is interpreted by the brain as reality. Information therefore is what reality is for us; and if we can tailor information to the brain we can generate a reality which is indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing.

Opponents fear that the new technology may end up serving as a mere escape from reality becoming, as it were, an electronic narcotic. So it is important to state what Virtual Reality actually is. It is a computer-generated mind-space with input and output devices that enable the user to interact with it and experience it. What is in that space depends on the programmes in the computer’s memory. These may be lifelike or fantasy objects. They can be anything the imagination can conceive, ranging from important files to harmless baubles – you can play tennis or fly through galaxies.

The input and output devices currently in use are gloves that sense the movements of hand, fingers and arm; body suits that monitor body movements; Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) that show the three-dimensional environment; and stereophones that relay three-dimensional sound. In a 3D ‘virtual world’ what you do and how you do it depends on a hand gesture, or a nod, or even a sound. It is this enablement technology that is the focus of much serious research geared to people with disabilities. You do not use a computer: you wear it. The implications for those with physical or mental disabilities are tremendous.

In the ‘virtual office’ a severely disabled worker can enjoy equal status with anyone else. Blind people or those with sight deficiencies will be able to relate to information more audibly or tactually. Deaf people will be able to manipulate information visually. Voice-recognition and speech-synthesis devices are already available. Walter J Greenleaf of Greenleaf Medical Systems, California, has created a prototype using a Dataglove and a Macintosh computer to control a telephone receptionist station. Using hand gestures the receptionist can instruct the computer to answer and route telephone calls or to activate pre-recorded messages. This highlights the specific nature of Virtual Reality. In cyberspace one is not merely a voyeur but an actor. Disabled people have the opportunity to accomplish tasks and have experiences which would otherwise be unattainable.

For those with severe disabilities, systems like BioMuse are being developed that use the biological signals generated by the eyes, the muscles and the brain. For example the user’s eye movements can manipulate the cursor on the screen. The point to which she directs her gaze is the point to which the cursor moves. In this way she can navigate her way around the menu of a word processor. By using additional input of jaw muscle tension she can write complete documents. In the same way she can move through a three-dimensional Virtual Reality space using muscle tension to access files or dialogue with objects in general. Advances in this field are now centring on brainwave detection devices that will allow the user to interface with the computer simply by thinking. The combination of electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern recognition and muscle movements will greatly help disabled people use new technology.

People with sight impairment can have the visual content of their screens tailored so as to be visible whether by altering colours of objects or accentuating borders. Audio-based games are being developed that will enable blind people to interact with fantasy worlds every bit as exciting as those enjoyed by the sighted.

Researchers are working on many other projects that will enable disabled people to express themselves more easily. A system called SLARTI, for example, will translate sign language into any spoken language. By bending fingers or wiggling a stick in the mouth, a disabled person can learn and play a musical instrument. Using other techniques for representing sounds visually she can be taught to see musical notation. Such sounds can also be rendered as tactile stimuli, so that the disabled person can create musical forms that are beyond the abilities of the so-called ‘able-bodied’ person. Meanwhile, psychologists are also looking to Virtual Reality to help treat mental afflictions such as depression and phobias of all types.

These and other developments promise to open up the world to those who hitherto have been barred from what the majority take for granted. If you look at it from this point of view Virtual Reality looks not like an escape from reality but a way into it.

William Kelly is a writer and Patrick Kinsella is a researcher specializing in Virtual Reality. They live in Derry, Northern Ireland.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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