Touching moment 3,000 miles apart becomes a virtual reality

Charles Arthur,Technology Editor
Wednesday 30 October 2002 01:00
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The cube felt rubbery, although it didn't strictly exist. As I moved the pencil-like mouse in my hand, a cursor moved too in the virtual room where the cube sat. A little manoeuvring and the cursor was beneath the cube. Move the pencil (called a "phantom") upwards, and suddenly there was the sensation of weight, and the cube moved upwards on the screen. With a little practice, I could flip it upwards and catch it. The surface seemed to give, like rubber; the weight felt like a small ball, perhaps a golf ball.

A few minutes later another cursor appeared, and moved to the opposite side of the cube. Then we both pushed at the same time, and the cube rose. It was the first transmission of "touch" over the internet, demonstrated simultaneously in London and Massachusetts yesterday.

The other cursor belonged to Jung Kim, a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Touch Lab" in Boston.

Developed by Joel Jordan, a PhD student at University College London, with MIT in Boston, the software used could one day mean that we will feel the sensation of objects picked up on the surface of the Moon or beneath the sea, surgeons could do operations remotely, a whole new genre of computer games could be created – internet arm-wrestling, anyone? – and perhaps a remarkable new spice could be added to internet sex.

The sensation of touch came from tiny motors inside the phantom's jointed systems, which were instructed by the computer when to resist any further movement. Take a fast enough link between two computers, and – just as in the demonstration – they can tell each other when their users' movements are bringing them into "contact" with the virtual objects in their memory.

Promising? To Mr Jordan, 27, it certainly seems so. But to some, the demonstration may just sound like an extension of the most-hyped technologies of the early 1990s: virtual reality, or VR, which became fixed in the public imagination by films such asThe Lawnmower Man in 1992, in which a couple had sex in an artificially created virtual reality world.

Like the dot.coms half a decade later, VR companies sprang up everywhere. But almost as soon as the film was released the VR bubble was bursting. "A lot of us were accused of over-hyping the technology," said Bob Stone, scientific director of VP Group, one of the longest- established VR companies – although it coyly describes itself as an "international leader in real-time 3D graphics software and solutions".

Mr Stone thinks the problem was that people were pushing VR for its own sake, rather than asking what problems it could solve, and how best to do that.

While Data Gloves – which could give the sensation that you were holding an object in your hand – looked good in pictures, they were expensive, and difficult to keep calibrated. Similarly, the headsets could give users nausea, preventing games companies from introducing them for home users in 1995.

So virtual reality became the technology that dared not speak its name. But today it was in reach of almost anyone, said Mr Stone.

"Nowadays you can buy a machine for under £1,000 which will outperform a supercomputer of a few years ago. Now, the specialised peripherals like the phantom, and the headset and gloves are available, but they're still unproven from the human effects point of view."

They are also expensive: the phantom that Mr Jordan was using at UCL costs $20,000 (£12,500).

VR had grown up, Mr Stone said. VP Group developed a system for the Army, using headsets to simulate 20mm and 30mm guns. "They fired one million virtual rounds of ammunition with it. If they'd done that with real ammunition it would have cost them £41m just for ordnance." The VR system cost less than £500,000.

Now, VR is actually worming its way into many aspects of our lives without our realising it. Keyhole surgery, where surgeons use controls and image viewers to manipulate instruments inside the body, is a form of VR. Computer games fans can buy steering wheels for race simulations that will give "force feedback" as they try to turn a corner.

Applications for "haptic" (touch) virtual reality systems:

MINE CLEARANCE

The French military is training recruits how to recognise different types of mines using simulations: different types of mine feel different when probed. More advanced systems might let mines be cleared by machine, at no risk to the operator.

UNDERSEA EXPLORATION

Machines can go where humans cannot. Being able to feel one's way around a sunken wreck or the base of an oil well would mean fewer risky trips by divers to deep-sea locations.

COMPUTER GAMES

With virtual golf, you could feel how hard you had hit a putt. Professionals might use it to prepare for tournaments.

INTERNET SEX

"Teledildonics" has long been a holy grail of the sex industry, but the costs have been too great and the technology too complex. But once something becomes widespread, the sex industry will find a way to make it pay – and possibly even speed its adoption.

SURGERY

Medicine is already benefiting from robots that can make hip replacements. But surgeons still prefer to be able to feel what they are doing. High-speed links and sensitive tools could let surgeons work in different places without travelling there.

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