`Virtual Reality' Hooks Architects

Clients can `enter' the building before it is constructed, and designers can try experiments

THE term "virtual reality" has been tossed around for a few years now by computer wizards, and this new technology is beginning to revolutionize the field of architecture.

At the American Institute of Architects convention here on June 22, a young renaissance man named Jaron Lanier described the process that allows a person to "enter" a computer-generated environment through a complex system of computer imaging and high-technology gear.

By donning a helmet or other specialized clothing wired to a computer, the user can place himself inside the "scene," manipulate his activity, and rearrange objects by moving his fingers. The scene appears to the viewer in three-dimensions. It is like interactive television, but more lifelike because you are actively involved in the scene. The concept has been used successfully in simulating flight training for pilots, race courses for luge teams, and surgery for doctors.

"Virtual reality is more and more a medium of choice for showing very large, complex projects. The interactive loop makes it feel more real," Mr. Lanier says of the connection made between the person and his artificial three-dimensional environment.

Lanier, who has been credited with coining the phrase "virtual reality," was casually dressed and sported waist-length strawberry-blond dreadlocks as unconventional as his topic.

The philosophy for virtual reality is based on the senses of the human body, according to Lanier. The head-mounted display provides each eye with images, and ears with stereo sound. The orientation of the person's head is transmitted to the computer. The glove provides the sense of touch and measures where your hand is in space.

"Images you see have to pass through the computer on their way to you for play-back information captured in computer simulation," says Lanier. "Magic happens when you connect them together so you have multiple users sharing the same virtual space," Lanier says. Simultaneously, architects could decide on elements of the design, and plug them in the system.

"The relationship of tools like this for architects is like sheet music to a symphony orchestra," says Lanier, who is also an accomplished pianist.

He cited a virtual-reality project that is already running: His company developed a kitchen kit that is being used in a shopping mall in Japan. A client can walk in, put on his virtual-reality outfit, and co-design his kitchen with the salesperson, choosing from 35,000 kitchen components in their catalog. The prospective buyer can rearrange every element within the kitchen until he sees what he likes in three-dimensional graphics. The kitchen kit program has been so successful that the company has asked VPL Research, Inc. (Lanier's company) to develop plans to turn this into a general house kit.

ANY size project is possible to envision in virtual reality, says Lanier, even plans for an entire city.

When the Berlin wall was torn down, the German government asked Lanier to create a model for parts of East Berlin that needed work. Lanier was able to create a virtual-reality simulation that showed what the subway would look like if it were to be reopened. The German planners chose his virtual-reality recommendation and, indeed, parts of the subway have now been reopened. Lanier is currently working on an overall virtual-reality project of Berlin.

Lanier says the virtual-reality system is primarily a communications tool. "It's good for involving clients. You can bring them into simulated space."

Liza Medek, an architect from Montreal who attended the seminar, says, "When you show blueprints, people don't know what a bathtub really looks like in the space. But when they see them in three-dimensional graphics, there is a correlation to the real thing."

Lanier says he can see in 10 or 20 years from now "you can be sitting in your virtual-reality living room and see fish tanks over on a shelf. There won't be fish in the tanks. In one there may be people shopping at a mall, a baseball game in another, a city council meeting going on in another, and maybe a real-estate office in the last. You're hooked into a network with all these people while sitting in your living room. You can fly into the situation and join the scene of your choice.

"The extraordinary possibility is people will share, create elements of a shared world."

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