© Mark Platten 2006

words concoct  



thesis: note  
thesis: abstract  
thesis: contents  
thesis: introduction  
thesis: chapter one  
thesis: chapter two  
thesis: chapter three  
thesis: chapter four  
thesis: chapter five  
thesis: chapter six  
thesis: chapter seven  
thesis: chapter eight  
thesis: conclusion  
thesis: bibliography  
thesis: acknowledgements  

Chapter Five: Applications Of Value

"...With architecture, scientific visualisation, with financial visualisation, these are tasks with a lot at stake, either human lives, or a lot of money, and that's the kind of thing that drives technology to develop from its earlier stages, to mature technology "(1)

Some VR applications are highly significant for humane and creative reasons. When treating the human body, diagnosticians and surgeons often contend with flat 2-dimensional versions of what are really 3d tasks - eg. X-ray photographs. Howard Rheingold discusses the ways in which CAT or CT scans, which enable diagnosticians to construct a 3d image of the body, can create a model they can actually experience as an environment:

'There are in fact real patients with real problems being treated by it. They hope within about ten years to have converted the prototype to working magic eyeglasses that they can connect to something like an ultrasound transducer...a kind of wand that they wave over the abdomen of a pregnant woman and try to see how the foetus looks. If you can do that in 3 dimensions, do it in real time, see into the body, then it gives diagnosticians a great deal of power. Also with radiation treatment of tumours, you have a irregular 3 dimensional object embedded in the body, surrounded by healthy tissue, you want to shoot radiation beams through the least amount of healthy tissue and the most amount of tumour. The better you are at the problem, the fewer the side effects the patient will have. If you can get a tumour's eye view and reach out and grab a radiation beam with your glove, and place it, then you have a kind of map that will help you zero in'(2)

(Fig. 30)

Virtual reality might offer a way of bringing people who are handicapped to lead functional lives. Work is currently in its very early stages. Tetraplegics, with spinal cord injury, may only be able to control their tongue. With a suitable controller in their mouth, they might use their tongue to perform the analogue of any function in a virtual world. Freedom of movement in the virtual world could then be a liberating experience....a robot could be controlled to feed its operator, and to enable him or her to make a living. Not only will that have humanitarian applications, but economic benefits as well.

'...I know a man who studies deaf and blind people....there are a few d&b people deaf and blind from birth who are able to decipher speech by holding their fingers up to someones throat ...the implication of that is that the human brain is somehow so elastic, so trainable, that you can turn the vibrations on the fingertips into understanding words. The question is if we replace those video cameras with microwave or infra-red, with all kinds of transducers we can have senses we didn't have before, what will human mean then? ...it's a means of exploring all those philosophical questions that people have been asking for a long time, now we may have a scientific instrument for investigating them...'(3)

David Warner, neuroscience researcher:

"A lot of the problem with patients in rehab is lack of motivation....we've found that by giving them this glove and having them play with virtual objects, they'll actually do more in a session than if there's a therapist coaching them. They're doing something. They're psychologically engaged. It's really wonderful because the virtual objects don't weigh anything, so the patients can pick up objects or practise specific motions before they could ever pick up that same object or do that same motion in the real world. So we're accelerating their rehabilitation."(4)

- describing how a VPL dataglove has been used to good effect in treating sufferers of Parkinson's disease. The cases of Christopher Nolan, writer, and physicist Stephen Hawking stand as classic examples of the humane application of information technology. Having been equipped with suitable interfaces to computers, both individuals have been able to communicate with the world at large much more efficiently; transcending some of the limitations of debilitating physical conditions; Hawking a victim of motor neurone disease, Nolan congenitally crippled. With VR's huge interface potential lies a tool of liberation and self expression.

What of the arts? April's two-day conference at the ICA, 'Towards the Aesthetics of the Future', inevitably in part mulled over the prospects of VR. Having personally suffered the rigours of discussion at this self-appointed repository of the contemporary arts, it was interesting to find John Train in 'Creative Camera Review' describing and attacking the proceedings as intellectual pseudism of the finest calibre, with scathing wit.....

"most of the 'leading-edge' participants revealed merely that poverty of thought which stifles innovation, and acts as midwife to the lookalike institutions of military, the multinational corporations, the academies and the art world .....cod philosophy abounds, along with nonperformed music, unwatchable video, wherin speed and violence supplant content, texts a-plenty, service industry-style magazines, escapist games ....events like the ICA conference and the quality of the work it uncovered suggest that the prohibition on pricks does not extend as far as the metaphorical realm. "(5)

Train's sentiments echo those of Richard Seymour's at the beginning of Chapter 4, and it is tempting to agree. But Seymour is implying that 'epoch-making technology' is generally compelled to jump through the hoop first, as an inevitability so to speak, and it may be that the gimmick era is a necessary if tedious phase through which VR will ascend. The medical applications, just being implemented, and the degree to which the Japanese are taking VR seriously would indicate that this early stage, which invites cynicism, will not last long. Besides, outside the ICA's walls, there are operators who embrace technology and art and make it work. In Europe, Rheingold found experiments funded by the French Ministry of Culture:

'....what they're interested in is creating new instruments for the arts. They're starting by simulating the skilled gesture.... a painter's brush stroke, or a violinists...the difference between an expert and a novice has to be a skilled gesture......although this looks like a pair of surgical scissors, it's actually a violin bow, and if you move it, the sound of a violin comes out of the speakers, and it feels like you've just bowed a violin....if you bow it badly as I did, you hear a screech come out of it, but if you are an expert violinist, it sounds like a violin concerto. In fact a skilled violinist can fool around with this for a few seconds and very quickly learn how to play it like a violin.'(6)

Similarly, digitally created images as in Figures. 31 & 32 might readily be transformed into compelling virtual environments, and the versatility of digital processing, as outlined in the introduction, promises unguessable arrangements of synaesthesiae.
Regrettably, one cannot see the more valuable benefits being made as widely available as might be desired, through the sheer lack of profit potential in improving human quality of life compared to entertaining/sating it. Whilst the tills ring in the highstreet, evening TV invariably brings fresh news on the state of the health service or the plight of the arts. On industrial release, I worked with a prosthetics specialist compelled through lack of funds to abandon the work he loved; re-building human bodies congenitally deformed or mutilated through accident, now earning his bread and butter in the entertainments industry. One can only hope that VR is eventually made available to such applications through its eventual predominance thus cheapness, as the argument that socially useful applications will come about as a latent function of the leisure industry is not wholly tenable.


(1) Howard Rheingold; from transcript of conversation; 28th October 1991
(2) Howard Rheingold; from transcript of conversation; 28th October 1991
(3) Howard Rheingold; from transcript of conversation; 28th October 1991
(4) Mahoney, D, 'A Helping Hand', in Computer Graphics World, Oct. 1991, pp. 73-74.
(5) Train, John, 'Jacking In, Jerking Off ', in 'Creative Camera', Jun/Jul 1991, pp. 12-13
(6) Howard Rheingold; from transcript of conversation; 28th October 1991