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By: Kalani Kirk Hausman
Texas A & M University, College Station, Texas
201 Highland Drive, Apt. 913
Taylor, Texas 76574
Sandra J. Hausman
Ralph M. Hausman, Ph.D.
Texas A & M International University, Laredo, Texas
The techno-speak buzz-term "Virtual Reality" is familiar to all of those who are attending this conference, or it will be by its completion. The concept of virtual reality is becoming all-pervasive in our modern society from popular "Cyberspace" novels and movies to such common items as our comic-strips. No field can expect to be completely unchanged by the introduction of this new idea - not even our humor. A recently-published newspaper comic illustrates a device labeled "Virtual Reality Golf," while a new exclusively-on-line comic strip can be found within the Internet system.
One of the greatest discoveries in modern science came about through serendipity, or a fortunate chance occurrence. A chemistry professor found his office unavailable, and was temporarily forced to share office space with two of his colleagues in the biology department. The biologists were working on a model for the DNA molecule. The chemist, seeing what they proposed, knew that the components would not bind as they imagined. He combined their data in a new pattern, the double helix. Today we are beginning to manipulate the very stuff of life itself due to this wondrous happenstance.
The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA is by no means an isolated incident in science. The British science historian James Burke has produced three television series tracing the "happy accidents" of invention and discovery. One can only wonder what marvels we might have had if more of science had been directed, rather than accidental.
Nothing has touched so many different fields of human endeavor as virtual reality, since the advent of the written word. Writing, which is in itself virtual thought, allows us to remember the past. It is the foundation for learning and knowledge. It permits us to move forward without having to relearn the sum of our ancestors' knowledge in each generation. The information age is going to require a greater and greater interchange of ideas at an ever increasing pace. The concept of Virtual Reality offers a true paradigm shift, or fundamental change in the way ideas are transferred or illustrated. Just as the concept of perspective gave depth to Renaissance paintings, so too will the technologies inherent in the concept of Virtual Reality give additional depth to all those fields in which it may find applications.
The concept of "Virtual Reality" is one of distinction. Many new products now invading the entertainment industry claim to be "Immersive" or "Interactive" or "Virtual Reality Simulations." These terms and others are applied to many items which may or may not illustrate the true essence of virtual reality as a concept. A presentation later today is based on a new toy labeled the "Virtual Reality Stuntmaster" which claims it "surrounds and completely involves you" in games played on a popular home-entertainment system. But is this truly "Virtual Reality," or merely an item of hardware laying claim to the catch-phrase in its very name? After all, what is Virtual Reality? At present, no definition seems to deliniate its limits. Thus, Virtual Reality could include high-tech equipment meant to simulate external environments, as well as something as simple as the spoken word, another form of "Virtual Thought."
The line between "Interactive Simulations" and "Immersive Experiences" is currently determined by advertising executives who hope to gain by their involvement in the popularity of this open-ended field of endeavor. However, with no limitations on the definition of Virtual Reality, an "Immersive Virtual Reality Experience" could be as simple as you picturing a stream, its waters bubbling merrily past an old mill, with brightly colored fish darting beneath the water's surface. A gentle breeze passes, carrying the light scent of wood and wildflowers.
To many who can visualize the above scene in any manner, this type of "Virtual Reality" is quite familiar. This is the oldest-known form of informational-exchange in which the storyteller uses illustrative terminology to evoke a desired sympathetic thought process in the listener. The listener, through suspension of his or her own disbelief, may then be said to be enjoying a "Virtual Experience" in the broadest sense of the term. But is this the true essence of "Virtual Reality"? Perhaps not. The concept of Virtual Reality does encompass these terms, but many more aspects of this idea may be found as needs appear and applications are discovered for the inevitable spin-off products developed. The concept of Virtual Reality is unbound, except by our imaginations and perhaps may even serve to widen those. But the literal meaning has not yet been defined.
The conference we are attending exists to discuss the needs of the disabled. It also provides a meeting place for vendors and products to be reviewed by those who hope to use them. However, only so much can be accomplished in three days. With a view toward directing developments in the field of virtual reality, a central database is hereby proposed. It could serve as an on-line forum for interactive discussion between vendors, persons with specials needs, and any other interested persons. At this time establishment of such a resource is being considered in order to allow convenient access for those who wish to become involved. This database would also aid in the standardization of terminology to be used in this budding technology.
Each person with a disability has unique needs that require individualized solutions. As a result, with the construction of new products, each disability requires specialized attention. With a central database in the form of a bulletin board service, vendors will be able to direct their output to specific situations. Persons with many diverse talents would be able to confer and collaborate, and persons with specific disabilities would be able to make their opinions known. In its proposed format, there are three main services that the bulletin board should provide.
1) A format for disabled individuals to express their specific needs in clear, concise language that the vendors can address.
2) A place where vendors can post information on new products, techniques and ideas in a non-commercial format regulated by the system operator.
3) An interactive forum for concerned people in any field to discuss their observations and recommendations regarding definitions, terminology, problem solutions, et cetera.
An additional benefit of the bulletin board system would be an eventual standardization of terminology. It is imperative that the central database address this issue as soon as possible. A commonality of language is required for accurate communication. At this international conference, it will indeed be fortunate if we are able to avoid misunderstandings based on language or culture. As an illustration, an American would refer to the hood and trunk of a car, an Englishman would refer to the bonnet and boot. The American may not know if the Englishman was talking about a car or articles of clothing.
Even within the United States, different people use the same words to mean different things. For example, a chemist, a mathematician and a philosopher could argue about the concept of absolute zero. The chemist would define absolute zero as zero Kelvins. The mathematician may argue that absolute zero was unattainable due to inaccuracies in computation. The philosopher might agree with the mathematician that absolute zero could not be reached, but only because there are no true absolutes. These three people need not be from separate areas of the world, they could easily all be on a faculty at the same institution.
New technology requires new terms. New words are constantly being invented, and old words redefined, as need arises. For "directed" serendipity to occur in any field, a standard lexicon is needed. Already in the area of virtual reality, a number of related fields have encroached with their own jargon. Terms lose their original connotations: nets no longer catch fish, bugs no longer crawl along, and mail no longer requires an envelope. These areas also include legal issues, as well as the needs of those individuals with disabilities.
Writing first allowed humankind to record its thoughts, ideas and dreams. Yet each person wrote by forming the letters differently from everyone else. It was not until the time of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages that a standard font was popularized. How much knowledge was lost because someone could not read another person's handwriting? We are poised on the brink of a new age of information, permitting greater interaction than ever before. We must communicate clearly if ideas are to be preserved and disseminated.
We are here at this conference to determine what benefits these technologies might yield for those with disabilities. But we cannot address their specific needs unless we become aware of them. There are many fascinating new products and ideas presented here. But unless those who need them are made aware of them they do no good. Many people at the conference, representing a variety of fields, are here solely because they are concerned with the issues being discussed. Great strides have been made during these three days. However, a central database could provide all of us with an ongoing forum for information interchange. Additionally, after standardization of terminology has occurred, those agencies involved in the regulation of terminology within the advertising field, such as the National Association of Broadcasters and others, will have guidelines to facilitate a more correct definition of new products so that the users may be better informed as to which items will fit their needs.
Through on-line communication we may be able to look forward to directing new developments. Virtual reality need not be left up to mere serendipitous chance. We need to help guide this new technology to its fullest potential.
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