Saturday, March 6, 2010

Experiences That Are Quite Unreal

Sydney Morning Herald

Sunday June 28, 1992


Jack Dikian and Virtual Worlds

IT USUALLY takes years for a computer technology to go from the laboratory or R & D department to the mass market. Those lucky enough to experience a new technology in its infancy are generally only the well connected or the wealthy

An exhibition at the Powerhouse museum (Sydney) next month will allow the public to experience two exciting and quite recently developed technologies - virtual reality and the computerised transformation of images known as "morphing".

The exhibitions, called "Virtual Reality" and "Altered States", will run during the school holidays but the Powerhouse museum expects as many adults as children to attend.

The Powerhouse claims to be the first museum in the world to conduct an exhibition, albeit a temporary one, on virtual reality.

According to the museum's curator of mathematics and computing, Matthew Connell, the aim of the Powerhouse has always been to feature new technologies.

"We have a tradition of presenting new technologies to the Australian public," said Connell. "These are important technologies which will have enormous impact, and we want to be there from the very beginning."

The virtual-reality exhibition will be a hands-on experience - people wearing headsets and holding joysticks will interact in computerised "virtual"worlds.

There is a choice of two virtual-reality experiences - Dactyl Nightmare(prehistoric birds swoop on you from great heights as you avoid an opponent)and Capture the Flag (ambush your opponent and seize his flag before you get shot).

Each fantasy experience takes three minutes and about 120 people will be able to participate each day. The visuals of Dactyl Nightmare and Capture the Flag will be shown on television monitors for the benefit of those who, because of time limitations, aren't able to participate.

Connell is not thrilled by the content of the virtual-reality experiences, but says the most important thing is enabling people to experience the technology.

"Dactyl Nightmare and Capture the Flag are shoot-'em-up games - they're not as bad as some video games, but that was all that was available to us," he said. "We're more interested in showing people the technology than whether the content is ideal. For a permanent exhibition we'd present a much wider choice than video arcade narratives.

"A lot of people will be interested in virtual reality as a new experience, but we want to draw attention to the enormous potential of the technology: for example, the less-sensationalist possibilities in science, education, design," said Connell.

The Powerhouse was investigating the feasibility of a virtual-reality display and speaking to companies in the United States and Japan when it discovered a Melbourne company that had begun distributing virtual-reality systems.

The Virtual Reality Corporation, which formed earlier this year, has the only two commercial virtual-reality systems in Australia. They are aimed at the education market and were produced by W Industries in the United Kingdom -systems are already installed in some European and American clubs and retail stores.

The museum's director, Terence Measham, said the Powerhouse was keen to develop a permanent virtual-reality exhibition.

The other temporary exhibition, "Altered States", will focus on the popular technology "morphing", in which a computer seamlessly transforms one object on-screen into another. The technique was used in Michael Jackson's video clip Black and White, in the film Terminator 2, and is being used in some Australian television commercials.

The exhibition will feature two graphics simulations on Silicon Graphics workstations which are explored using a spaceball, or 3-D mouse. People will be able to fly over a fractal-generated landscape in a paper aeroplane, and walk through an architect's design of a building.

Jack Dikian, a futurist with Silicon Graphics, will be at the museum, conducting demonstrations and answering questions on computerised image transformation.

"We hope people gain an understanding of how interactive 3-D graphics can be used in the workplace, and that they develop an appreciation of what the technology can do for them," Dikian said.

He said that people seeing a simulation for the first time usually reacted with stunned silence. "Most people are struck by what they're seeing. You'd never expect to look down at a mountain as you fly over it. People often ask if they're watching a movie," he said.

"Virtual Reality" is on daily from next Saturday to Wednesday, July 8. It is recommended for children aged 10 and over. Bookings must be made in person on the day at the museum for a chance to participate. Twenty names will be drawn from a barrel each hour. "Altered States" is on daily from Monday, July 13, to Sunday, July 19, from 10 am to 4 pm.

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