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New Developments: Virtual Reality
US Senate Subcommittee Hearing
by Ben Delaney

This article originally appeared in CyberEdge Journal #4, July/August © 1991

On Wednesday, May 8, 1991, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space held what we believe was an historical hearing, New Developments in Computer Technology:Virtual Reality. Chaired by Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, and attended by Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, and Senator Slade Gorton of Washington, the hearing took a serious look at the state of the technology, and the federal government's role in its development. Witnesses included (in order of appearance) Jaron Lanier, President of VPL Research, Dr. Fred Brooks, Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Thomas Furness, Director of the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington, Dr. Charles Brownstein, Acting Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Dr. Lee Holcomb, director of the Information Sciences and Human Factors Division of NASA.

Senator Gore opened the hearing by relating that when they announced the hearing, the committee got "dozens of telephone calls from people asking 'What is virtual reality, and why are you holding a hearing on it?'" The answer he said, was "fairly simple. Virtual reality promises to revolutionize the way we use computers. It has the potential to change our lives in dozens of ways." He continued, "I think it's important that Congress understand this technology and its significance, because we need to make sure that the federal government does all it can to stimulate innovative and truly important new technologies like virtual reality." He also expressed his concern that Japan is spending vastly more than the United States in developing applications for VR, saying, "clearly the Japanese are serious about completely dominating this new field."

Lanier started the testimony by acknowledging his intellectual debt to Brooks and Furness. He recounted the history of VPL and discussed the business of building and selling VR systems, including getting VR out of the lab and into real application situations. Responding to Gore's remarks, he mentioned that most of VPL's customers are nor in the United States, but are from Japan, Germany and France. In response to a question from Senator Gore, he said that Japan alone is probably spending ten time the amount spent in the United States for VR research. Most VPL systems are used for experiential prototyping (such as Matsushita's Virtual Kitchen) or automotive ergonomic testing. Other important applications are scientific visualization, medical visualization, entertainment, training, and physical therapy. He addressed foreign competition by stating, "it's inappropriate to criticize the Japanese for doing a good job, which is all they've done, and it is also inappropriate to expect salvation from Washington. It's very important for the federal government to help us any way it can, but on the other hand, the only way we can succeed is to take full responsibility ourselves." He expressed concern, though, that VPL is dependent on foreign sources for both customers and critical supplies.

Dr. Brooks followed Lanier and discussed his pioneering work in the development of head-mounted displays and other technologies, which started in 1965 under the inspiration of Ivan Sutherland. Brooks feels that the measure of virtual worlds systems is that they be good enough to be useful, including good enough to fool the user into thinking she is seeing the real world. He suggested that 200,000 texture mapped polygons per second will be the minimum rendering capability of such a system. He also pointed out problems with current position tracking systems, which are limited in range, and typically introduce a lag between movement and the representation of that movement, due to the time required to update their data flow; a tenth to a fifth of a second. He discussed UNC's work on biochemistry and molecular structure studies, medical imaging, (including oncological treatment strategies) and architectural design. He stressed the need for Intelligence Amplifying (IA) systems; those which combine the intelligence of a human being with the intelligence of cybernetic system. Brooks' remarks included a recital of many government funding sources of UNC's work, for which he expressed his appreciation. He said that additional support is needed to drive down the cost of these systems and make them more available.

The third witness was Dr. Thomas Furness from the HIT Lab. He recounted his work in the Air Force (See CyberEdge Journal, issues #2 and #3.) which lead to the development of the Super Cockpit, a virtual cockpit environment now used in advanced fighter planes. He described the high resolution CRTs developed for head mounted displays, some of which scan 1200 lines of resolution with 5,500 foot-lamberts of luminance. He says over 2000 pixels per inch is possible in lower-luminance displays. He also explained their developments of 3D sound and spatial tracking systems, also used in the Super Cockpit. He explained to the committee how his 1985 exposure of the technology through various news reports created enormous public interest, and many suggested applications. Furness expressed the goal of the HIT Lab as twofold; to develop the technologies and to teach. He talked about several projects on which the Lab is working, including the Virtu-Phone; a virtual reality phone which is worn, and enables the user to dial a place, and have her senses "be" there. He also described what may be the HIT Lab's most ambitious project, the Virtual Retinal Display, which would draw an image directly on the retina of the eye. This hypothetical $500 device would weigh less than an ounce, and provide a 4000 x 4000 pixel display using a phased array of lasers. Furness speculated that a prototype of the Retinal Display could be functioning within three years, with production in five years.

Two witnesses presented the government's position on VR. The first was Dr. Charles Brownstein, from the NSF. Brownstein's testimony was somewhat confusing to us. He did not share the fears expressed by others concerning Japan's possible dominance, saying that United States companies are well poised to lead the field. But he pointed out that despite nearly 30 years of technology development, much of it funded by the federal government, little is ready for market. He presented an extensive list of problems and challenges yet to be met. "You really cannot underestimate the job remaining to be done" he emphasized, "in both the hardware and the software for handling this type of information in ways that will make it more than a curiosity." He explained that he, and many other information workers, are eager to have virtual agents working in data spaces to aid his work, but did not seem clear on how such systems would get to market. He concluded by saying that we don't really need a program dedicated to virtual reality, because many programs encompass it as part of their larger missions, providing ample resources. Senator Gore seemed to disagree strongly with this conclusion, and criticized the relative lack of funding and government attention.

Dr. Lee Holcomb than spoke on NASA's investment in virtuality, both in dollars and other resources. He estimates that NASA has spent only a bit over $1 million on these programs in the past five years. Their goal, he said is to develop effective, affordable VR systems and to evaluate their aerospace applications. He cited these programs as of special interest to NASA:

  • Robot Control Interfaces
  • Information Visualization
  • Visualization of Remotely Acquired Terrain Data
  • Advanced Systems Interfaces
  • Astronaut and Mission Training

Holcomb discussed NASA's work on data visualization. He said, "The virtual reality system is one promising tool to improve the productivity of scientists and engineers in the United States in the analysis of high-performance computing problems. We have begun research on scientific and engineering data using the Virtual Environment Workstation." He concluded by stating that NASA expects VR to play an important role in future missions, and become an increasing element of conventional computing systems. Senator Gore expressed his feeling that NASA is not using VR technology, much of which it developed, to the extent which is warranted by its promise. Holcomb replied that while funding problems and the unproven nature of VR technology contribute to its not being extensively used, research continues.

It's obvious that VR has a strong ally in Senator Gore. He had done his homework and was surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject. He said that the subcommittee will continue to look at the technology and will stay up to date. The political process seldom moves quickly, but it appears that VR has piqued the imagination of some of our most influential leaders. This probably won't hurt funding efforts. Those of us in the industry are well advised to keep Senator Gore informed of our work and our thoughts regarding the government's role in developing this technology.

A video tape of part of the subcommittee hearing is available from the Virtual Reality Film Documentary.

Contact: Michael R. Nelson, US Commerce Committee Professional Staff Member, Washington, DC 20510 USA.

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