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Foresight Update 8 (page 2)

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Table of Contents - Foresight Update 8

New Technology: Virtual Reality

by David Gagliano

Computers have become critical support tools for the development of advanced technologies. They will be essential for developing nanotechnology, yet the complexity of most computer systems makes them difficult to use. The learning barrier that must be overcome to use a computer system prevents people from exploiting computers to their full potential.

Researchers have been experimenting with a new genre of computer interface technology to make complex systems easier to use. Termed Virtual Reality (VR), this new interface technology will revolutionize the way people think about and work with computers. Instead of forcing the user to learn awkward control devices, such as the keyboard, a VR interface supports interactions already familiar to the user. The user is placed in a simulated working environment where gestures and spoken commands are used to control simulated objects. VR uses a combination of stereoscopic image generation and sensor technologies to simulate the interaction environment. Computers generate 3D images of the environment while sensors track the user's movements. The user is provided with a sense of being an active participant in the simulation, a feeling reminiscent of the movie TRON.

The image generation technology essential for creating virtual environments has been developing quickly. Researchers supporting NASA's Virtual Environment Workstation project have developed a prototype 3D display system using color liquid crystal display screens (similar to those found on portable TVs) mounted on a lightweight helmet. Computers drive each eye's LCD with the appropriate images, and the person wearing the helmet sees the simulated environment in 3D. Coupling the helmet with sensors for head orientation and eye movement allows the user to gaze about the simulated environment while the computer generates the appropriate scenery.

Researchers working on the U.S. Air Force's Super Cockpit program have developed a helmet-mounted display tube that projects its image onto a clear acrylic visor. The clear visor display allows computer generated images to be superimposed over the user's vision. Rather than replace the user's environment with an artificial one, a clear display system would help a user/wearer better interact with the real environment. Similar displays for automobiles would allow a driver to read a car's instrumentation without diverting attention from the road.

The user "feels" the molecules moving against each other

Helmet-based displays allow the user to look about the VR, but the user also needs a way to interact with simulated objects. VPL Inc. of Redwood City, CA, recently introduced a VR interface technology that links the operator's movements to the computer. Flexible sensors sewn onto a lightweight fabric provide information on the orientation of the user's hand and the positions of the fingers to the computer controlling the simulation. When wearing DataGlovesTM in a VR, the user can reach out and grasp elements of the modeled environment. VPL recently extended the DataGlove concept to bring the rest of the body into the simulation, creating a DataSuitTM

The commercial products produced by VPL remain expensive, from $250,000 to $500,000. Similar but lower cost devices are in the technology demonstration stage at Autodesk Inc. of Sausalito, CA. Autodesk, the producer of AutoCAD--the industry standard computer-aided design software for IBM-PC platforms--plans to use the devices as interfaces to its software products.

Although DataGloves and the DataSuit allow the user to interact with the VR, the simulation does not provide the physical feedback cues familiar to the user. A simulated ball has no substance and slips through the fingers like mist.

The problem of providing physical feedback from a VR is slowly yielding to creative solutions. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have converted a robot arm into a device for providing primitive force feedback. The user operates a pistol-like grip attached to the mechanical arm to manipulate objects in the simulation. When the user attempts to move an object, the arm moves the grip against the user's hand. The user interprets this resistance as coming from the object in the simulation. Led by Prof. Frederick Brooks of the UNC Computer Science Dept., UNC is applying this feedback technology to help scientists obtain a better understanding of the way molecules fit together (molecular docking problems). The user 'feels' the forces associated with moving the molecules against each other, while watching computer-generated images of the molecules in motion.

Another UNC innovation combines a modified treadmill with handlebars, producing a system that allows the user to stroll through a VR. Users can journey through a model of the UNC campus, using the handlebars for steering, without worrying about running into walls. Interfaced with an electron or scanning tunneling microscope, this technology could also be used to 'walk' across the surface of an integrated circuit.

[Editor's note: For more recent information, see the article on the UNC Nanomanipulator project in Update 25.]

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Margaret Minsky has been working to create a device that provides feedback for virtual textures. A prototype device is based upon a pencil-like stylus. To 'feel' the texture of an object modeled in the VR, the user runs the stylus over the object's surface. The sensation is similar to running a pencil over coarse sandpaper or over a china plate.

Air Force researchers have also used piezoelectric buzzers to provide limited tactile feedback from a VR. The buzzers are mounted inside special gloves, and activated when the user's hand is moved through a plane in space. Because the user perceives the plane as a penetrable wall of pressure, this technique could be used to delineate a simulation's physical boundaries.

Although much innovation is still needed for realistic physical feedback, aural feedback and oral command interfaces are proving extremely useful in VR. By adding speakers to their display helmet, Air Force researchers found that directional sound cues could enhance a VR with valuable information. For example, positional sound cues could provide the locations of threat aircraft without interrupting the pilot. Speaker-independent speech recognition systems are now widely available; adding a microphone allows the user to control the VR with spoken commands.

Applications of VR interface technology are nearly endless. Prof. Thomas Furness, Director of the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory, sees VR interfaces as an important component in developing and controlling nanomachinery. He is currently working to develop a VR interface for controlling a micromachined surgical robot. A surgeon will control an onboard surgical laser, using VR displays to operate on delicate tissues.

NASA is considering equipping space suits with VR to provide astronauts access to control panels and technical information while away from the shuttle. A ground-based engineer could become 'tele-present' in the astronaut's VR, providing critical design information while the astronaut works to repair a damaged satellite. VR could even make conventional space travel more economical by replacing weighty instrument panels with virtual displays.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of VR technology is that it provides a new medium for working with computers, a medium with few limits. VR technology can break down the barriers that limit computer utilization, making complicated systems more accessible. Empowering people with better support tools will result in greater productivity and faster progress, accelerating our advance into an era of nanotechnology.

David Gagliano is a software engineer at BDM International and VP of Nanotechnology Group Inc., a Seattle-based information services firm.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 8

Technology Fiction (Part I)

by John G. Cramer

Mainstream fiction is often represented as valuable to its readers because it deepens our insights, heightens our sensitivities, sharpens our perceptions, and broadens our understanding of the human condition in the world as it is today. By extension of the same argument, reading many works of science fiction can be said to prepare us to live not in the present, but in the future. SF is the literature of change, holding up the mirror of a hypothetical future that may be compared with the present, allowing contrast of what is with what could be. SF stimulates us to think about change and thus prepares us to live with change. This is particularly true when the change is the result of a technological revolution.

Nanotechnology is a technological revolution not yet here, an evolving technology that has not yet come to fruition, a series of breakthroughs waiting to unfold from the presently exponentiating progress in molecular biology, in microelectronics, and in nanometer-scale microscopy. A few with imagination and keen vision can see nanotechnology looming on the horizons of our civilization, a great storm cloud that promises a thorough soaking with the warm rain of enhanced capabilities, but also brings the strong winds of massive change.

Nanotechnology will, in time, give us the ability to design and produce from the atomic level up almost anything we desire: wonder drugs, marvelous tools, machines, computers, vehicles, and habitats. Factories and manufacturing will become obsolete. All production, heavy or light, will be reduced to a problem of software which, once developed, can be used again and again within the usually generous limits of available resources. When this technological revolution has gone to completion our labor-and production-and information-based society will of necessity have been altered so radically that it is difficult to imagine even its shape. What central aspect of out present society would not be mutated or devalued by nanotechnology?

In the present inquiry we'll examine the treatment of nanotechnology in science fiction. We'll call the fictionalized version nanotek to distinguish it from the real thing. While there have been numerous SF treatments of various aspects of biotechnology and genetic engineering, the vast potential of nanotek as fiction was largely ignored until the publication of K. Eric Drexler's visionary Engines of Creation (Doubleday, 1986). Drexler described nanotechnology and brought its implications into clear focus. Now, with an ever-increasing tempo, SF writers are beginning to use nanotek themes in their fiction and to depict its impact. In the present overview, we'll examine what several SF writers have guessed and extrapolated about the shape of fictional nanotek futures.

First, however, I want to discuss some perhaps obvious aspects of SF writing. There are basic incompatibilities between good story telling and accurate prophecy. A good story needs conflict and dramatic tension. A fictional technology with too much power and potential, too much "magic", can spoil the tension and suspense. The "future" as depicted in an SF story should be recognizably like the present to maintain contact with the reader. Most SF stories depict straightforward extrapolations from the present or the past, with relatively few truly radical changes, so that the reader is not lost in a morass of strangeness. To achieve good characterization the writer must focus on a small group of people, yet most real revolutions, technological or otherwise, involve thousands of key players. The intelligence and personality integration of fictional characters cannot be much higher than that of the writer, yet enhanced intelligence may be an important aspect of the nanotechnology revolution to come.

The track record of SF writers as prophets, operating within these constraints, has not been impressive. The future, as has emerged, has rarely borne much resemblance to the near-future SF that preceded it. There has not been a global nuclear war, despite the vast popularity of the post-holocaust setting in SF. No SF stories, to my knowledge, have accurately predicted AIDS, or Supernova 1987A, or the meltdown of the iron curtain, or junk bonds and leveraged buyouts, or Dan Quayle, or most of the other things that have shaped our recent history.

The nanotechnology revolution, when it comes, will not be bound by these storytelling constraints. It will almost certainly be a broadly based international effort pushed forward on many fronts by armies of scientists, engineers, and technicians working in cooperation and in competition. The chances of a single hero making a pivotal discovery in isolation are small. The impacts will also occur on a broad front, affecting every facet of everyday life. Since the realistic scenario for the nanotechnology revolution probably doesn't make a good story, we shouldn't expect SF to predict our nanotechnology future. Nevertheless, it's of value to look at some nanotek scenarios used in SF.

One of the first SF stories to describe what might be loosely called nanotek is Theodore Sturgeon's much-anthologized "Microcosmic God" (Astounding, 1941). The protagonist, James Kidder, is a biochemist who, by establishing the conditions for a speeded-up form of natural selection, "evolves" the Neoterics, a tiny race of super-intelligent creatures. The Neoterics have an accelerated metabolism which permits them to accomplish any task very rapidly. Kidder causes them to solve problems for him by subjecting them to selected external forces that can cause death and destruction.
Soon the Neoterics are producing a string of inventions and discoveries that make Kidder a very rich man in our society. To the Neoterics, however, he is a cruel and capricious God. Finally the clever Neoterics develop an impenetrable shield that isolates them from their "God," allowing them to continue their progress in unknown directions. The human race is left to wait nervously for the day when the Neoterics lower their shield and emerge.

Sturgeon's Neoterics were small (sub-millimeter in size?), but not nanometer-scale molecular machines, and Kidder's control of them was more at the level of coercion than of programming; further, they are evolved rather than designed. If there is a warning in Sturgeon's scenario, it is that evolution, as opposed to design, may be a dangerous path for developing nanomachines because it is difficult to control.

Another early SF story that anticipated some aspects of nanotechnology is James Blish's "Surface Tension" (Galaxy, 1952). A seed-ship, sent from Earth to spread human life in suitable planets of nearby star systems, has crash-landed on Hydrot, an ocean planet of the Tau Ceti system which has only one small swampy continent containing no higher life forms. The crew is dying. As their last act they create a completely new form of humanity, tiny men and women reduced to protozoan size. They seed the pools and puddles of Hydrot with this new edition of the human race.

The story proper describes the adventures of one group of these micro-humans that has just mastered the biotechnology which enables it to travel from one pool to another. The nanotechnology here, as in "Microcosmic God" concerns the creation of intelligent microscopic creatures. In "Surface Tension," however, the theme concerns gaining control over a hostile environment, not loss of control as in the Sturgeon work. The protagonists have entered an age of discovery which will only end when they have conquered their planet, and indeed their "voyage" from one puddle to another packs more adventure, excitement, and sense of wonder than would the discovery of a new star system. "Surface Tension" is a refreshingly upbeat view of the the universality of human nature, even in humans reduced to microscopic size.

[See Part II in Update 9.]

John G. Cramer is a Professor of Physics at the University of Washington, Seattle, and author of Twistor, a near-future hard-SF novel published in hardcover by William Morrow & Company in March 1989. His science-fact column, "The Alternate View," is published bi-monthly in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 8

Compuserve Access

We receive many inquiries regarding electronic bulletin board systems on nanotechnology: the best at present is the sci.nanotech newsgroup on the Usenet network. It is a moderated discussion group on the topic of nanotechnology having about 5000 readers. We've been informed by FI member John Papiewski that the Compuserve computer network has recently enabled access to the Internet system, which is connected to the Usenet system. Presumably Compuserve users can now access sci.nanotech.

Others can gain access through the WELL (voice number 415-332-4335), Portal (408-973-9111), or other commercial services. Accessing through the WELL has an additional benefit: help in learning to use Usenet, which is not particularly user-friendly. A three-page article in the Winter 1989 Whole Earth Review explains the Usenet system, gives a list of phone numbers for free access, and references a book to get you started on Usenet; contact us if you have trouble obtaining the article from your library. For further information on sci.nanotech, contact the moderator, Josh Hall, at

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 8

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 8 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 8, originally published 15 March 1990.
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