LAS VEGAS -- In a city abuzz with buzz words during the annual Comdex computer trade show this week, the term "virtual" is far and away the most popular.
At Bally's Hotel on the strip, a Canadian company called QSound Ltd. is showing "virtual sound" for games, training and education.
Using a common set of stereo speakers and a proprietary technique, it "fools the brain" into thinking sounds are coming from each side and even from behind the listener, said consultant Brian Schmidt.
At Piero's Restaurant across from the Las Vegas Convention Center, Virtual Reality Laboratories Inc. of San Luis Obispo, Calif., exhibits a "virtual observatory" showing 1,800 images collected by NASA spacecraft of nearly every planet and many moons.
The user can watch the sun, moon, planets and comets move through the universe.
"If I'd had this in high school I might have actually enjoyed astronomy," joked Allan Johnson, a San Diego consultant.
"Virtual reality" is a computer term for attempts to re-create sensations and environments by computer. It is being used largely for demonstration projects, specialized training and video games.
A "virtual audio" rock concert, featuring Jeffrey Baxter of Steely Dan, the Who's John Entwistle, Edgar Winter and Todd Rundgren, was scheduled to highlight last night's party.
The concert, during which artist Peter Max will create computerized artworks, is expected to raise more than $1 million for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It is sponsored by computer software maker Micrografx of Richardson, Texas.
There's even "Virtual Valerie," a soft-porn compact-disc game offered by Body Cello, which bills itself as an "adults-only software" company in Sorrento Valley, Calif.
QSound's technology requires the listener to sit between two standard speakers. A sophisticated system of phasing and different frequencies creates the impression of sounds near and far away, in front and in back and even overhead.
"It's just one more dimension that lends realism to the user's experience," Mr. Schmidt said. Game makers particularly like it because sound makes the listener think fighter planes are attacking from behind or lions are roaring in the distance, he said.
No counterpart technology for tricking the brain with visual imagery has yet been developed. But virtual-reality research, including pioneering work being done at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology laboratory, suggests that a visual equivalent is not far off. The lab is working on a laser-beam technology that uses the back of the eyeball as a projection screen.
Another Virtual Reality Laboratories program, Mars Explorer, puts the computer user in orbit around Mars aboard NASA's Viking photo mission. And the University of Washington labs' Vistapro puts 19 stunning landscapes on the screen, including Mount St. Helens before and after the eruption, as though the user were right there.
"The rate the technology is advancing is impressing even the old-timers at Comdex this year," said Pat Meier, a public-relations consultant working with the California lab. "Things that people didn't expect to see 'til the end of decade are happening right now."