CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
I AM standing in the middle of a room that looks like a TV cartoon. Except the mass in front of me is not a character but a big, blue-green-red molecule. It's floating. I turn my head to the left, find a smaller blue-green-red molecule, and reach out my hand. The small molecule turns white when I "grab" it (using a computer mouse).
This is my first experience with "virtual reality." I want to make the most of it.
The scene shifts. I am flying toward a merry-go-round and, once there, I have a hard time mounting the horse. He whinnies when I succeed. The merry-go-round starts up and I look out at other horses going up and down as the horizon begins to rotate.
Virtual reality is a computer-generated world.
Want to explore Mars? NASA's Virtual Environment Research Lab here has simulated a flyover based on information from Viking orbiters. Want to know how two molecules attract and repel? Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill have a mechanical arm that reproduces the feel of the electrostatic and bump forces.
The point of virtual reality is that you no longer just see other worlds. You enter them.
To enter the one generated by the UNC computer, I have donned a special headset with two miniature TV screens as goggles. An overhead sensor tracks my movements and the computer instantaneously recalculates my position and transmits a new view to the goggles. I use the mouse to reach out because the computer senses that too.
In another part of the lab, I'm traveling through a house lighted at night. No goggles this time. Just a large TV screen and a black box with two joysticks - like a computer game. The picture is no longer cartoonish but almost realistic, with textures of wood and the effect of light bouncing off surfaces. I walk through doors and walls.
This architectural application is one of the coming benefits of the technology. Already a small North Carolina company called Virtus Corporation is selling "WalkThrough" for $895. It allows architects to design buildings on a MacIntosh computer.