Alexandria, Va. -- We fly like a cruise missile, skimming over the green-blue gulf toward Kuwait City, swooping past the minaret-style Kuwait Towers and down the coastline to the U.S. Embassy. Slowing to a stop for a look around, we whirl and speed off to Kuwait International Airport.
Then a clumsy reporter takes the softball-shaped joystick and we blunder through the windows of an apartment tower. At one point, our craft plunges below the ground and we find ourselves peering up at the boxy, cartoon-like cityscape through the suddenly-transparent earth.
But my co-pilot, a 48-year-old computer engineer named Robert Leigh Clover, just grins. That's because we're not in any aircraft. We're nowhere near the real Kuwait. In a sense, we are not even in the physical world.
Welcome to the Pentagon's window on virtual reality -- also known as artificial reality or cyberspace. This fledgling computer technology creates video images of three-dimensional landscapes and permits the properly-equipped observer to seem enter, move through and manipulate these digital realms.
Navy Cmdr. Dennis K. McBride, the 38-year-old head of Warfighting Simulation for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA), says the Army last year rushed to compile virtual reality re-creations of battlefields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. The idea was to give Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other Desert Storm commanders the power personally to scout the terrain and deployment of enemy forces.
The effort, called Project Odin, wasn't completed in time for use in the Persian Gulf War, which ended a year ago this week.
Still, Commander McBride, a rail-thin engineer, predicts that future battles will be planned, rehearsed and executed in cyberspace before a shot is fired in anger. Engineers will drive, fly and test-fire weapons not yet built. And special operations forces will practice undercover missions in detail, he says, "right up to the point they kick in the back door of the American Embassy."
Coupled with future advances in artificial intelligence, he says, the technology could also give military commanders directing combat the chance to test potential tactics by "fast-forwarding" the battle scene, obtaining the computer's best guess as to what will happen in the next ten minutes or ten hours.
Some civilian experts, meanwhile, think the military's interest in virtual reality could hamper efforts to develop commercial, consumer and scientific applications -- steering the technology away from civilian designs by pouring money and brainpower into combat research. There is fear, for example, that the military's standard for computer simulation software is too specific and inflexible for easy use in the civilian sector.
"We can have a really great military virtual reality, but if we have a Japanese virtual reality in technology in our homes, what have we gained?" asked Robert Jacobson, associate director of the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory.
And some researchers muse that someday, if virtual warfare becomes too realistic, it might be hard to tell the difference between training exercises and actual combat. Life and death decisions might be made casually. Or warriors might search desperately for the "escape" button in the midst of fierce combat.
Our flight over Kuwait City took place in the Simulation Center of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a defense department think tank with its headquarters in a suburban office complex here. Classified research and development is done elsewhere: this center is designed to demonstrate virtual reality to top Pentagon brass and elected officials.
By the standards of some civilian laboratories, the Simulation Center's equipment is low-tech: a desk, a couple of computer terminals, the softball-shaped controller and a bank of three 50-inch televisions.
A key piece of hardware is missing: the television goggles called "Head Mounted Displays," which provide the wearer with a wide-angle, stereoscopic view of the virtual world. A tracking device follows head movements so when the wearer turns, his view of the scene shifts.
(One center employee said they figure most senators and generals probably wouldn't like wearing the headgear, which offers low video fidelity anyway).
The Pentagon's biggest beachhead in the virtual world is probably a computer network, called Simnet, that connects a number of simple tank simulators at far-flung military bases, allowing them to skirmish on digital battlefields. Aviation Week reported in September that Simnet's "fidelity was too low for realistic tank training," and the Army is shopping for a more sophisticated system.
Eventually, the Pentagon hopes to develop a richly-detailed and inexpensive system that will allow computers to stage large-scale military maneuvers, which could be executed without spending any money on fuel, spare parts or ammunition.
In the civilian world, interest in virtual technology is booming.