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Virtually there

Want to walk with the dinosaurs or chat with Leonardo Da Vinci? Virtual reality (VR), which powers interactive entertainment and gaming systems, has been doing that, writes Prakash Chandra.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2006 04:17 IST

Want to walk with the dinosaurs or chat with Leonardo Da Vinci? Virtual reality (VR), which powers interactive entertainment and gaming systems, has been doing that. And now it’s entering new realms like medical therapy.

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a VR system where amputees can have missing limbs replaced with virtual ones. It fools the brain into ‘seeing’ and ‘moving’ the amputated limb, helping to alleviate ‘phantom limb pain’ (caused by the sensation that the limb is still attached to the body). This could also reduce phantom pain after a tooth extraction or an eye removal. Doctors already employ VR techniques to treat phobias by simulating fearful situations and modifying a patient’s behaviour accordingly.

Artificial reality had always been the art of a storyteller till the middle of the last century, when computers let us into these simulated worlds. In the mid-Sixties, at the University of Utah, Ivan Sutherland created the first VR system using ‘interactive computer graphics’, which made an observer feel that he was surrounded by 3-D objects.

A typical VR system has an image generator, a display and a transducer. The image generator programmes the computer to create believable illusions. A head-mounted display, with goggles and headphones, fills your field of vision and hearing with computer-generated images and sounds. The transducer uses magnetic fields that vary as you move to translate your ‘action’ for the computer. That’s how you ‘destroy’ enemy jets on the screen. A data-glove with optical fibers transmitting varying amounts of light interprets finger movements. Touch can be simulated through ‘haptics’, which uses small motors in gloves to provide resistance that matches objects in the virtual world. Researchers have even figured out how to use just brain activity to manipulate objects in virtual reality!

In Star Trek’s ‘holo-deck’, crewmembers could become anything they fancy. Though we’re some years away from that, VR technology help us get a better grip on the real world. Architects ‘walk’ through buildings they plan and pilots and drivers train using simulators.

‘Replacement reality’, a computer-generated environment where even your sense of smell and touch are included in the experience, is a step beyond VR. Such ‘immersive’ experiences could take you back in time as far back as the formation of the Solar System itself. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Email Prakash Chandra: pchandra@hindustantimes.com