I HAVE become at once Jacques Cousteau and Medusa. Wearing a souped-up scuba mask sprouting wires like snakes, I am sitting in a windowless room with a TV monitor and a stack of blinking computers. A slinky, black glove with enough cables to power Manhattan is slipped over my right hand. I am about to visit ``virtual reality,'' also known as ``cyberspace'' or ``artificial reality.''
With a flick of the switch, I appear to be floating through a three-dimensional world, powered wherever I point my gloved finger. Today's ``virtual world'': a room with several objects - soccer ball, stove, duck. Outside is a car, a high-arching sculpture of sorts, and clouds.
An animated hand that mimics my own appears in this world. Seeming to propel myself around the ``room'' - though I am still seated - I can pick up objects and set them down. The illusion of movement is made possible by a tiny television set over each eye, each screen connected to a computer that is manipulating visual information by using signals generated by the action of my own head and hand.
This procedure is performed dozens of times a week for potential clients of Virtual Programming Languages (VPL) Research Inc., by most accounts the leader in virtual reality ideas and equipment. A year ago, the field was the interest of a few dabblers like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and specialized research firms.
Today, VPL claims that it has 180 paying clients, many of whom are keeping their plans under wraps. It's a craze some say will parallel the rise of the computer itself.
``This is going to be one of the high payoff applications of computers,'' says Michael McGreevy, who oversees NASA's work in virtual reality. ``It is going to be so accessible to people who have no technical training ... and will give them a dramatic world they can interact with very naturally and intuitively.''
``I think it will redefine our social structure,'' says Marshall Moseley, a software analyst for Dataquest Inc., a market research company. ``It's applications are literally boundless.''
Consider these current uses:
``Virtual'' buildings through which architects walk clients while manipulating design features such as height, depth, and color.
Model cities with which urban planners can study traffic flow, or how new skyscrapers might block light or create urban wind tunnels.
Visualization of lunar and planetary terrain for planning space missions.
There are also entertainment possibilities, from movies and theater to arcade games and sports. Mattel Inc., the toy company, sells a $90 computer glove modeled after VPL's design for use with Nintendo video games.
``I think these will be the Sony Walkman of the next generation,'' says Henry Fuchs, a computer scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who has worked on three-dimensional imaging for 20 years.
The man who coined the term, and who is at the forefront of virtual reality, is VPL's founder, Jaron Lanier. Though the forerunner of Mr. Lanier's so-called ``Eyephone'' headset was invented by Ivan Sutherland of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 1968, Lanier and VPL co-founder Tom Zimmer-man have refined and expanded on Sutherland's concepts. In 1985, they invented a way to create and move about in three-dimensional worlds.
``The original vision is Sutherland's,'' Dr. Fuchs says. ``But Lanier has had the courage and flamboyance to broaden the concept, popularize and package it.'' Not that his equipment is within reach of the average consumer. Eyephones run $9,400, and DataGloves cost $8,800 each. They are connected to $225,000 worth of computer hardware that computes the thousands of operations per second necessary to generate virtual worlds.
LAST YEAR, Lanier introduced virtual reality for two, in which a pair of users can interact in the same world. Since then, Lanier says, virtual reality has become a media commodity about which expectations have run amok.
``One extreme is that virtual reality is science fiction, a totally weird concept perpetrated by crackpot scientists,'' says the 29-year-old Wunderkind whose dreadlocks make him look like a white reggae singer. ``The others say we've achieved perfect photorealism and can simulate reality - which is an extreme overstatement. Both reports do a disservice.''
What ``virtual reality'' has done, he says, is to cross a threshold beyond the drawing board to useful, highly manipulatable - but rudimentary - renderings of the physical world.
One of his clients, Japan's manufacturing giant Matsushita, is preparing boutiques where customers can design their own kitchens. After bringing design specifications to the store, customers will don goggles to analyze everything from appliance color to door clearance and heat retention before making a purchase.
Lanier's main focus now is on designing the software that will allow customers to quickly build their own worlds. ``If it takes [clients] too long, they might just as well build a big model,'' he says.
Two fantasies Lanier says have been perpetrated by the press are the promise of Caribbean vacationlands and ``human'' bodies. ``Anyone who has experienced the medium will agree that it has potential for adventure and art,'' he says. ``But the quality of geography or the human body as a sensuous object are far too rooted in the physical world. That's not what [virtual reality's] forte is.''
Indeed, current users note the cartoon quality of today's applications, which can be overcome only by far more powerful computers. Lanier and others say ``photorealism'' quality is still 20 years away.
A second, main problem is time lag: When turning the head, users note a slight delay - about a quarter second - before their virtual world responds. The speed necessary for some applications, such as the practice of surgery on virtual patients or in sports, would require something no less than 1/30th of a second.
A third problem is user disorientation. Since visual stimuli outpace those of the user's physical body, many users experience nausea and dizziness after a few minutes of virtual reality.
BEYOND the practical implications of these inventions, they also pose philosophical questions.
``This seems to be one more facet of American culture in which people can invest in image instead of reality,'' says Juan de Pascuale, a professor of philosophy at Kenyon College in Ohio. ``We confuse actors with real people, politicians' images with the humans in office. People seem unconcerned whether or not the possibly real and the virtually real are as good as the really real.''
Lanier is less concerned. As with books and movies, a certain amount of user imagination is required to complete the experience. ``I think this is a tool which can help people share their imaginations by making them more objective,'' he says. ``Anything that serves as that kind of a bridge adds to the adventure of life.''