By Howard Rheingold
Virtual Reality is the first book for the general reader on the revolutionary new technology of virtual reality. Sure VR has been buried in oodles of media and advertising hype, but on the other side of all that, the technology itself still holds out great excitement and promise. Rheingold, writer, high-tech humanist, and computer networker was a witness to VR's early development at Nasa/Ames, VPL, and Autodesk in the late Eighties, and was instrumental in starting the Virtual Reality conference on the W.E.L.L. and the sci.virtual-worlds conference on Usenet. I too was a lurker and participant in these conferences and can attest to the sense of excitement and discovery that Howard so aptly captures in his book. As Stewart Brand says on the book's jacket, "it is rare to have so definitive a coverage of a new technology so early in its growth." I think this is not only a tribute to Howard's investigative skills, but also to the power of an informal electronic brain-trust like the W.E.L.L to augment an individual's research. It is a writer/researcher's dream: instant audience, instant feedback, up to the minute news. One could see (and participate in) the building of the VR community's infrastructure, link by link, day by day. It was an exciting time.
Rheingold gives us a guided tour of VR research and commercial sites and talks to the key players involved - Scott Fisher at NASA, Jaron Lanier at VPL, the folks at Autodesk, the VR team at the University of North Carolina, among others. At UNC, Rheingold docks molecules and strolls through a building yet to be built; at NASA, he pilots helicopter simulators and operates robots in virtual "outer space;" and in Tsukuba, Japan, he has a high-tech out-of-body experience, watching himself through the eyes of a telerobot.
With Howard's usual "whole systems" approach, he combines philosophical, psychological, social, and economic, and even sexual insights on this... er... up-and-coming technology. A very readable account of a historic moment in technological development. Highly recommended.
The only draw-back to this book is that it contains NO pictures! This seems like a really ridiculous decision by the publisher, given that the book is about a completely visual (and for some, hard to visualize) new technology.
Here is the TEXT POPUP for Virtual Reality...
We are elements in an informational ecology that creates the illusion we call "reality." The photons, the light-reflecting properties of the objects we see, the distance between our eyes, the nature of our visual perception system, our parallel data processors and other brain functions still unknown to science, act in concert to weave the apparently seamless cloth of experience.
Never underestimate the power of the enthusiast, particularly the American technical enthusiast. One of the most positive personae of the composite American personality is the tinkerer, the inventor, the garage-scientist, who messes around with crystal sets or homemade computers for the fun of it. The Edisons, the Teslas, the Wozniaks just seem to emerge at regular intervals from the pool of technological amateurs...
Looking at the electronic ecstasy question from the other side is an instructive thought experiment: virtual reality, if inspired and talented people are seized by the vision and the desire to make it so, might become the first wholesome, integrating, nonpathological form of ecstasy capable of liberating safely the long-repressed Dionysian energies of our heavily Apollonian civilization. One answer to the electronic LSD question is, therefore: "Yes, VR might become a key to opening the doors of perception, but only if someone has the grace and the good sense to design it properly."
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