Virtual reality graphics now harnessed to serve architects' imagination

December 25, 1993|By Blair Kamin | Blair Kamin,Chicago Tribune

Virtual reality, which uses computer graphics to simulate actual experience, is poised to go beyond its video-arcade role of enabling youths to zap space aliens. Instead of merely providing escapist entertainment, this emerging technology could revolutionize the inescapable art of architecture, enabling people to customize their homes and workplaces before a brick is laid.

Virtual reality has been employed to simulate an Olympic race course for a U.S. bobsledder preparing for the 1992 Winter Olympics. It has provided flight simulation for airline pilots and surgery training for doctors. NASA has used it to ready astronauts for space walks. Walt Disney Co. plans virtual reality exhibits for its American history theme park outside Washington.

Some futurists predict that virtual reality will offer "electronic sex" -- and that it will be the ultimate safe sex because a computer cannot be infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

The multibillion dollar entertainment industry is driving new developments in virtual reality. But designers may be able to piggyback on advances financed by the industry.

The impact on everyday life could be profound. Virtual reality now enables homeowners to lay out and select furnishings for kitchens. The technology exists to adapt office work stations to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-stress injuries. Archaeologists have used virtual reality to re-create a destroyed French church from the Middle Ages, while architects have constructed a virtual version of an unbuilt synagogue in Jerusalem.

In the future, urban designers may use the technology to determine whether proposed skyscrapers would cast shadows on streets and parks. And, instead of building a mock-up of rooms designed by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, museums could convey that experience through a medium that allows the viewer to walk through the rooms -- perhaps even change them.

Interaction is the key

"Interactivity is what virtual reality is all about," says virtual reality pioneer Myron Krueger of Vernon, Conn., named by Life magazine in 1990 as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

In general, virtual reality works like this: A head-mounted device is fitted with two small color monitors, one for each eye. Earphones provide stereo sound. Sensors detect head motion, providing different views as you turn around or from side to side. A glove lined with optical fibers records hand movement, allowing you to reach out and grab objects in the simulated environment.

Like actors in a play, these objects can be programmed with different qualities. A desk top, for example, might be adjusted up down. Sunlight and shadow patterns can be shown at different times of the day.

Some big architectural firms now use computer-assisted design to produce videos that take prospective clients into the lobby of a skyscraper, up the elevator and into their office. Virtual reality goes beyond that.

"We've gone from a simple blueprint to something like a movie," says John Trimble, president of Prairie Virtual Systems Corp., a Chicago start-up company that is a leader in the field. "The next step is that, instead of watching the movie on your monitor, you're in it. That's virtual reality."

Save on costly errors

Some architects assert that the technology will take the guesswork out of design and prevent costly errors that might go undetected by conventional drafting methods. Others predict that architects will be reluctant to adopt practices that could strip them of powers they have traditionally enjoyed over clients who found it difficult to read blueprints, sketches and models.

"Architecture has always been about control," says John Zukowsky, curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago. "When a client looks at drawings or a model, they really don't know what they're looking at. But when they look at virtual reality, they know exactly what they're looking at. This is the scary part for architects."

Before most of these scenarios come to pass, significant practical obstacles must be overcome. A complete virtual reality system now costs between $15,000 and $500,000 -- far too expensive for even the largest architectural firms. "That's a lot of money for anybody," says Thomas Fridstein, managing partner of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

There also are technical problems to work out. Many architects complain about the crude, cartoon-like pictures produced by inexpensive virtual reality monitors; only the most costly monitors can deliver the high-resolution images designers desire. Also, head-mounted devices weigh as much as 3 1/2 pounds and are too uncomfortable for many users. And when the users move, it takes a split second for sensors to relay that information to the image-generating computer. The lag results for many users in nausea and disorientation.

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