The Virtues of Virtual Virtuosity

November 18, 1994|By STEVE EVANGELOU

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — Oakland, California. -- When virtual reality first loomed a few years back, someone must have ordered an extra-large bandwagon.

Venture capitalists, Defense Department spooks, computer columnists and dweebs of all description came crawling out of their dark sanctuaries, salivating over the opportunity to make a lot of money, stay ahead of the Russians, fill column space or play with really cool technology. (I won't mention lawyers, though of course they were crawling around, too.) Conversations like the following ensued:

Dweep to dweeb: ''It's way cool -- it's like your hand is in this big cyberspace, and when you move your hand you can actually see your hand moving!''

Visionary to venture capitalist: ''This has the potential to be bigger than the personal digital assistant!''

Spook to congressman: ''This isn't a secure line, so that's all I cantell you -- just put your checkbook on full alert.''

Time passed. It became a lot harder to keep up with Russian geography than with Russian military technology. Architects can now design virtual houses, and medical students can slice and dice virtual bodies without fear of lawsuits.

Virtual reality arcade games created a new black hole to suck the money from teen-agers' wallets. Even mystics got into the picture, asking questions like, ''What is the sound of one virtual hand clapping?''

Although these are good things, they're hardly reason to start drooling over a new technology. It's been said, ''You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get him to float on his back, you've really got something.''

Here's what virtual reality must accomplish if it wants to float on its back:

First, how about some virtual reality for Congress? It doesn't get much of the ordinary kind.

Experiencing a balanced budget would probably be too much of a shock, so let's start easy. We'll give each member a virtual math program. Simple problems come first: ''If there are 435 congressional districts and each district gets $1 billion in crime-bill appropriations, how many incumbents will be re-elected to another term?''

Then graphics will show how far a stack of a billion one-dollar bills would stretch into space.

If the math doesn't improve, let's elect a virtual Congress. Sure, it would probably still vote itself a raise every couple of years, but the payoff would be in virtual money. If all the lobbyists in the world screamed, would a virtual congressman hear a sound?

Second, virtual reality could boost productivity. Every technology company could use the Virtual Programmer program. Instead of maintaining an entire staff of pizza-scarfing, cola-swilling social misfits, they could just load Virtual Programmers onto a computer and stand back.

Like a real programmer, it would start itself up about noon, refuse to talk to any other virtual programs, burp, scratch itself, play game programs, run until midnight or 2 in the morning and occasionally produce some truly great software.

And no more messy Coke spills on the keyboards.

Third, there's space -- the final frontier. NASA could save billions through virtual space exploration. Telescope have a faulty mirror? Use the program to cut and paste a new one. Lose a satellite? Instead of ''game over,'' you just restart the computer.

Finally, virtual reality could even find a place in foreign policy. I'll skip the details, but think of the advantages a virtual Evil Empire would offer now that the real one has fallen apart. Everyone got checkbooks on full alert?

Steve Evangelou says he was virtually asleep when he wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.

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