Virtual Environments and Historical Contexts

I recently attended a talk given by Fred Brooks in Research Triangle Park. Best known as "the father of the IBM System/360" and for coining "Brooks Law" (the addition of more programmers to a late project will only make it later), he currently teaches at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, which he helped found in 1964.

Brooks spoke with lively enthusiasm about how his long-running interest in computer graphics, which he traces back to a talk he heard in 1965, led to his current work in virtual reality systems.

For the most part, these systems have non-entertainment applications. Flight simulators, military combat simulators, and tools for helping stroke patients regain a normal gait are a few representative examples of the applications of his work. Indeed, Brooks finds entertainment applications less interesting because entertainment consumers are "easier to fool," and as a result, the products don't need to be as rigorously designed and tested.

Nevertheless, the usability of virtual environments, as Brooks prefers to call them, hinges on fooling users into taking a virtual environment as seriously as a real one, and Brooks's team spends much of their time testing the best ways to do this. One way they've begun to get users to take the virtual environment more seriously is by adding real physical and haptic cues.

Drawing on Eleanor J. Gibson's experiments with visual cliffs from the 1960s, Brooks's lab has experimented with a virtual environment in which users must walk around a room with a walkway at the edge, and a large open hole in the center, in order to complete certain tasks. Although wearing a helmet to project the virtual environment, subjects would in some cases walk directly across the virtual hole without concern, breaking through the virtual environment. Elevating the walkway by a few inches, however, resulted in a dramatic change in user behavior. Subjects now jumped back in genuine fear (measured by changes in heart rate and skin conductivity) when approaching the edge.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his talk centered on the use of redirected walking in order to further mold user experience of a virtual environment. In order to make a virtual environment seem real and to reduce simulator sickness, subjects in a virtual environment walk the same distance and direction in the actual environment. Redirected walking, however, imperceptibly shifts the virtual environment, making the user think, for instance, that he or she is walking in a straight line even when walking in circles. More radical shifts in the virtual environment's orientation can be snuck by the user with the additional aid of distractionary tactics--like a barking dog or a swarm of butterflies--which cause the user to turn his or head, allowing the scene to be repositioned.

The major benefit of this technique is that is allows virtual space to transcend real space: subjects could now walk a mile in a straight line in virtual space while in the confines of a 50-foot room. Brooks is quick to point out that we are "not going to see a Holodeck" in his lifetime, but the potential of redirected walking to change immersive virtual environments seems revolutionary nonetheless.

Brooks's talk also got me thinking about the ways in which current, state-of-the-art advances in computing impact us as historians of computing technology. For the most part, our research interests and intellectual concerns are necessarily shaped by current contexts; often a difficult issue for historians to contend with as we strive to preserve equanimity. I'd be interested in hearing how recent advances in computing, or current concerns about computing and society, have impacted your most recent research project, and to what extent you welcome (or try to avoid) connections of this kind.