The panel, Are You Here? Presence in Virtual Reality debates the value of VR.






















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VR for the Masses

Although in-home systems using these nifty VR toys are still a fantasy, spectacular virtual worlds for the masses are on their way in the form of theme parks. The next generation of Walt Disney's original idea will be made not from plaster and paint, but of VR experiences stuffed inside a single building, duplicated in cities across America. Two chains aimed at young people, Virtual World and Dave and Buster's, already exist. At least three more national chains are being planned: GameWorks, associated with Steven Spielberg; Metreon, from Sony; and Disney's own entry, DisneyQuest, which opened last month at Walt Disney World. The first city-based copy of DisneyQuest will open in Chicago next summer.

Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, helped evaluate audience reaction to DisneyQuest's attractions in order to fine-tune them. "DisneyQuest is very, very hard to describe," he says. Designed for people of all ages to come and stay two to three hours and maybe eat, it contains a variety of unusual experiences. "The only common theme is that they're pretty interactive," he adds, "there's really nothing passive at all."

So you can drop down a 150-foot slide. You can design your own roller coaster on a computer and then "ride" in it in a 360-degree motion simulator. You and three other people can raft down a virtual river using real paddles, and if you don't all pull equally hard, your raft will spin in circles. You and a friend can team up to ride in a real bumper car equipped with a second seat for a gunner. The driver maneuvers so the car can scoop up real volleyball-sized balls which the gunner then shoots at the other cars to momentarily disable them.

Pausch argues that DisneyQuest produces a high-quality, immersive experience that makes you feel "there." But some others in the VR business doubt whether presence--defined as the strong illusion of being in and acting in the simulated "other place"--really exists, and whether it can ever be measured even if it does exist.

At the very least, it's clear that the feeling of greater presence that head-mounted displays provide over monitor displays doesn't always translate into more accurate perceptual judgments. Being in real life or watching a VR simulation of it through a head-mounted display "causes hills to look steeper and buildings to look taller than they really are," reports Dennis Proffitt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. "These perceptual biases are considerably smaller when the same scenes are viewed on a desktop terminal."

Mel Slater of the University College of London believes that presence is not only real but essential to VR. Without it, he thinks rehearsal simulations like the jet-fighter maintenance training may not teach trainees enough to be worth using.

Modeling | Rendering | Animation | Interaction | Virtual Reality | Synthetic Actors