THE San Diego Zoo is one of the world's best. It attracts 3 million visitors a year. It houses an extensive bird collection and the world's largest koala collection outside of Australia. Until last month, I had never seen it.
At least, not really seen it. I'd only visited through a CD-ROM program called ``San Diego Zoo Presents ... The Animals!'' You might say I had virtually wandered around the place.
Many people have grand ideas about virtual reality. They imagine scientists donning headsets and goggles to travel to some never-never world. It sounds a little sinister. If the scientists build enchanting worlds, will anyone want to come back to the real thing?
The goggles do exist. And university researchers are finding ways to apply virtual reality to everything from architecture to archaeology. But for most of us, virtual reality is far more down-to-earth.
Computer games are virtual reality. You move through pretend worlds to zap space aliens. In some ways, a telephone call is virtual reality because two people interact as though they were together. Certainly, my CD-ROM of the zoo is low-level virtual reality. You don't need goggles to see, hear, and read about animals.
I last looked at that disk two months ago. So, when a business trip took us to San Diego last month, my wife and I made sure to visit the zoo. I wanted to see how virtual reality stacked up to the real thing.
After a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, I came away with several conclusions. The first is that the real world is far more fun than virtual ones. Another conclusion, however, is that this comparison misses the point. Interesting things happen when you join the two.
The zoo is a pleasant integration of space. To see the tigers, you walk into Tiger River. To see the birds of the rain forest, you enter the huge enclosed Rainforest Aviary. Just one splash from an aviary's waterfall, and you'll never try to compare CD-ROM virtual reality with the real thing.
``There's a lot of interesting stuff at the San Diego Zoo that's not going to get captured on a CD-ROM,'' says James Coggins, a computer-science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ``You won't smell anything that is there. You won't realize just how tall that giraffe really is.''
And that's no criticism of the San Diego Zoo CD-ROM. When Software Toolworks (now Mindscape) came out with it two years ago, it was heralded as one of the best examples of multimedia. It remains the company's top product, with over 1 million copies sold. Next month, the company expects to release a new version with even more video and information on animals in the wild.
While the real zoo was more enjoyable, I nevertheless found it was far easier to learn from the CD-ROM. No matter how many plaques one might read, the information flowing from the virtual zoo was far more ample and more accessible.
And that is the point of virtual reality. It is not intended to replace the real world. It's designed to give people a better way of interacting with computers: Architects can check for mistakes on virtual buildings before they're built; archaeologists can recreate virtually the mounds they dig up for artifacts.
That may explain why scientists are dropping the term virtual reality in favor of ``augmented reality.'' It better captures the idea that the technology melds the strengths of the computer with those of the individual. One day, perhaps, the technology will get so good we'll want to play exclusively in virtual worlds. But don't bet on it. This weekend, some 750 million people will watch the Super Bowl on television. I suspect most of them would give up their living-room seats to join the 70,000 people actually attending the game.
Being there is still No. 1 in football, zoos, and life.
* Virtual mail is welcome at the following nonphysical locations: CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (LBELSIE), or via the Internet (firstname.lastname@example.org).