© Mark Platten 2006
Chapter Three: Virtual Reality In The Workplace
'...it was interesting to discover these people because they've been working since the 1970s unaware of the other efforts in virtual reality.....another attempt - they know it now but they didn't know it then - an attempt to touch a virtual reality...by the time I got to Grenoble I had this briefcase full of stuff from everywhere else. They now know about the rest of virtual reality work, they know that what they are doing is an aspect of virtual reality...'(1)
Speaking to Rheingold, I asked him what he now regarded as his role in the field. He is now working on a new book, concerned with the future of communication, having charted the history of, and to some extent communicated VR as its potential prospective medium. Whilst VR as 'frontier territory' has provided ammunition for sensationalists and sceptics, Rheingold presented a patient, sober, illuminating overview from what must be a unique standpoint. During the evening, he shed light on some of the pragmatic applications of VR, which are nonetheless of great import, and a good way of getting a handle on the conceptual possibilities.
'Nobody really knows how many tasks we can use this technique for. Aircraft designers can use it to try to make a virtual wind tunnel to design new wings, to reach in and feel how effective...to change the shape with their hands, instead of going and building a real model and bringing it back, they can do that in real time (See Fig. 17, 18) There are a number of complex phenomena which are being studied, one of which is the stock market. Financial visualisation is a way of taking the complexities of stock transactions, money transactions, and making it possible for people to see patterns they didn't see before. Obviously if someone comes up with a way to do that it gives them an advantage, even if it's only a few minutes' advantage you could make a lot of money.'(2)
The stock exchange offers one application of VR with potentially immense applications. It also highlights the question of how a new tool must redefine the talent that will use it.
'International transactions reached $87 trillion in 1986....23 times the US GNP.... trade is only about 10% of that $87 trillion. The rest of it is generated by electronic transactions.'(3)
- Peter Schwartz, formerly of Stanford Research Institute, who forsees
'cybernautic brokers of the future who zoom through landscapes that are the 3D depictions of market-places, as reported through global electronic transaction systems, in real time.... cruising through a forest and catching a lizard and eating it might be the way corporate raiders of the future play out their games of merger and takeover.'(4)
I spoke to economist Rodney Mitchell, BA, MSc, currently a lecturer at the City Business School, about some of the ideas discussed by Rheingold & in Horizon. Approaching this specialist in a particular field with a new and perhaps radical concept, I gained some useful feedback
Mr. Mitchell explained that the popular notion of the stock exchange as a single place or environment, is a fallacy to some extent compounded by its bastardization in the media in the sake of drama/entertainment. Many different 'floors' exist throughout the financial world, traded in by brokers - buying and selling on behalf of clients - or by jobbers; middlemen unto themselves....whilst information technology has been taken on board in so-called screen-based systems, where figures representing futures/commodities are displayed and can be traded on in real time via VDU and keyboard, a more interesting example is the LIFFE (London International Financial Futures Exchange), where trading goes on amidst a seething morass of jostling bodies, in a system known as 'open outcry'. Here, as the name suggests, actual physical symbols, as opposed to mere fluorescent alphanumerics on a screen, are deployed. In an atmosphere more akin to that of the dog tracks, teams of speculators have evolved basic communication systems: the coded colours of their suits, frequently garish, complex hand signals, much shouting; and an individual's relative position on the trading floor all play important roles.
These semaphores could all be translated into a VR format, gaining speed, precision, reliability, flexibilty. In an ultra-high-stress career, where earnings, through commission, of £700 000 p.a. are not uncommon, a trader is generally burnt out by the late 20s. With such large sums at stake even at the minions' end, one is left with the impression of a quite ruthless business whose various factions would be more than willing to invest in a new communications tool; anything that would give them the edge over their competitors. As Mr. Mitchell told me, 'Were I Chief executive of LIFFE, at the minimum I would commission a study of the potentials of VR'
Rheingold talks about 'scientific visualisation' and 'medical imaging'; two VR applications currently available:
'....if you want to create a new chemical which may be an effective anti-cancer medicine, one way is to identify a molecule that's already on the surface of a tumour cell, and then you either find or create another molecule that fits into it, geometrically, , like a lock, and a key, and if that happens you may inactivate that chemical on the surface of a tumour cell, and therefore have an effective medicine. The problem is that there's a very wide variety of possible chemicals that you can create of any particular shape. It takes too long to run through them all. By creating models of possible molecules, it's possible to reach out, and try to fit them together....what makes this set-up more powerful is that they have force feedback controllers....electromechanical devices that you grasp, that push back at you, so if you take the electronic molecular forces that cause some molecules to repel each other and some molecules to attract each other, then you can grab these models like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and try to fit them together.
'....this package....runs on relatively inexpensive hardware...a bog-standard IBM PC lookalike 486 33MHz computer...it uses some rather special Intel boards, which are used to create the textures that are displayed on the screen, it's one of the reasons it can run as, er, quickly as it does, in that the textures are redisplayed by the hardware, rather than waiting for the software to regenerate....we have sold the system and recieved a lot of interest from a large number of commercial companies..... We're talking to an aero-engine manufacturer, a British aeroengine manufacturer, I'm not allowed to say who it is...and what they want to use it for is to simulate a mechanic maintaining the engine. Now you probably know more about aero engines than I do, but apparently, when they need maintenance, it needs a mechanic to get his arm inside the thing....At the moment, it costs them about £1m to build a model just so they can prove the mechanic can't get his arm in there.....the new system, which is going to cost them a few thousand instead of a million, will enable them to simulate that procedure, without ever having to build a model. We're talking to a number of architects, obviously architects, set designers, exhibition designers, these are obvious targets for VR, to be able to design your house, your theatre set, your exhibition stand, using an industry standard CAD/CAM type package and then use VR to to be able to look at it, walk around it, change the colours, change the textures - alright, I don't like that wallpaper - fine, choose a different wallpaper, without ever having to cut a piece of wood, lay a brick, anything else, it's all simulated on a computer; it saves an enormous amount of money. So the direction we're going in is to aim VR very definately at the commercial market .' (6)
A limited number could try the VPL set-up, and Fate decreed that I should be the first number out of the hat - I walked up in front of about 120 people, sat in the chair and prepared for the experience; seating myself on a chair, placing the head-gear - (or 'eyephones', as VR's proselytisers would prefer) on, and grasping the joy-stick-like controller that was my means of 'navigating' through the selected environment - a nondescript blueish room. After my first, disappointing journey into cyberspace in one of W Industries' arcade-type machines, I was predisposed to think this version would be of a higher calibre; geared, as it was, to serious industrial applications. (Fig. 22)
I was slightly perturbed to find that it was somewhat worse: the graphic resolution was primitive enough to rapidly disorient me, initially I had some trouble focussing - surely not the VR of the Waterstones' wine - and I imagine that here are potential ergonomic problems waiting in the wings for this technology. Mr Kelly informed me from the real world that I had just accidentally ploughed through the virtual wall of the room I was supposedly in. After some fumbling, and laughs from the audience, I was able to gain a sense of where I was. As one pushes forward or back on the hand-controller, for example, one moves further into or out of, the room. Sideways and up and down movements are similarly achieved. The time I spent within the system was only a matter of minutes, during which I could not help but reflect upon Mr. Kelly's one phrase....."we're exploiting it like mad !" - a hark back to the good old gung-ho Empire Days? ...our boys have come up with a new fearful weapon for attacking those sproggle-blotchets, chaps. To be fair, the eyephones here (Fig. 23) were by Californian company Virtual Research. A VPL version, with higher resolution is also sold, but is less 'designed' (read visually appealling) and more expensive.
At the Computer Graphics 1991 trade fair at Alexandra Palace, 6th November, VPL had a stand, and were deploying the higher quality system, which I am pleased to report was a great improvement. At the event there were a number of VR companies, who all seemed to concentrate on displaying architectural examples to demonstrate their product. For the interior designer or architect, the potentials are self evident. (Fig. 24, 25) Either at the design stage; investigating different ideas, or in demonstrating work to clients, VR will be a useful aspirin to ease the headaches of visualisation; model-building; idea selling.
In fact, it is reasonable to suppose that the medium will be perfect for conducting any kind of business in the future....
Furthermore, VR research is promising useful applications in robotics. A person's sense of presence can effectively be transferred to a robot. 'Telepresence', as the phenomenon is termed, offers in effect a highly sensitive and articulate form of remote control. Human reaction speeds, judgement and pattern perception, married to the ability of robots to function in environments hazardous to man; their relative strength, resilience and stamina; could revolutionise how certain tasks, industrial or otherwise, are performed: In the decommissioning of nuclear reactors; fire - fighting; deep marine work; bomb disposal; in fact any situation that might compromise the well-being of human operatives.
(See Figs. 26, 27)
(1) Howard Rheingold; from transcript of conversation; 28th October 1991