-The World of Virtual Reality-
Dr. Michitaka Hirose
University of Tokyo Institute of Technology
About fifty years have passed since the machine we know as the computer came into this world. If asked to give the most distinguished characteristic regarding this machine, I would point out the speed of its development. Recently the capacity of computers has doubled each year. A simple calculation shows that ten years will bring a thousand-fold increase in capacity, a figure almost beyond comprehension. Chart 1 indicates the decrease in price of the LSI memory per bit. Cost reduction of LSI memory is under way by about 100 times, if not 1,000.
1980 is said to be the dawn of the personal computer Age in Japan. At that time, the memory capacity of a computer was several kilobytes, and the data transmission speed was several kilobits/s. We were in the "Kilo Era" in computer age.
In 1990, work stations made their appearance in laboratories and offices. The capacity of computers there became "mega" in scale, and the network transmission speed attained to several Mbps. In this case, the capacity of computers improved more than 1000 times compared to the former one in the 1980s. Thus we have been in the "Mega Era" as of 1998.
It is claimed that the "G"(giga) unit will appear in the early 21st century. Thus, the "Giga Era" is close at hand. This astounding quantitative expansion in capacity is bound to result in qualitative changes as well. The information processed by kilobyte equals one page of Japanese writing(400 words). On the other hand, handling a piece of photograph requires almost one mega byte. Furthermore, the capacity of Gigabytes may be required for processing moving images.
In the transition from the "Kilo Era" to the "Giga Era," we should notice that the type of information processed has been changing remarkably. In the "Kilo Era," computers were capable of processing only text and numbers because of insufficient technology.
Backed by highly advanced computer technology, recent expansion of multimedia technology diversifies the potential of data processing ranging from moving images to letters in an interactive format.
Among multimedia technologies, a leading technique is that of virtual reality (Chart 2). It was only 1989 when the name was introduced to the world. People now are able to perform various activities in a "virtual" space created by the computer, enabling them to broaden the world they can experience directly.
Chart 3 shows one of the world largest VR devices, which enables us to experience various simulated worlds. Simulated experience even enables us to understand instinctively the theory of relativity proposed by Einstein , which can be difficult even for science-major students to understand. I do not think this technology of virtual reality will change the fundamentals education for children. However, it is no doubt that virtual reality could also provide us with another attractive potential in the realm of teaching our children.
In the past, only logical knowledge could be transmitted systematically and efficiently. Today we are very lucky to be able to introduce a new world to children by providing them with "experiences." Reality becomes meaningful when children incorporate their experiences into their frame of mind, by the process of watching and touching. The invention of microscopes and telescopes quickly led to the enhancement of the intelligence level of human beings. Likewise the technology of virtual reality will have great influence on the mental activity of human beings.
The image of computers today are not necessarily only associated with a programmer facing a display and touching a keyboard as presented in the past. The image of computers has been making a drastic change.
Today there are computers which can be operated and interacted by the movement of the human body with the assistance of a "motion capture" device. Also with the "touch display" shown in Chart 5, you can touch a simulated image and feel its weight and movement. Current mobile system computers can even follow the movement of human beings.
Many have raised the issue of the computer depriving the individual of mobility. However this preconception is rather old-fashioned, only accounting for the imperfect image of computers.
As for the future educational use of computers, it is obvious that children's contact with computers will no longer be limited to the classroom computers will also facilitate in childrens real experiences outside the class and it will prove to be an extremely powerful medium for proving children with various new experiences.
Some people go as far as to say that the invention of virtual technology is comparable to Columbus' discovery of the American continent. Nowadays, computers are regarded as essential tools for children to create their new world. It will be interesting to observe and guide the growth of those children who have stepped into this world filled with many possibilities.