VIRTUAL REALITY Designer envisions a model design tool


DETROIT -- What if an engineer could design a car on a computer screen, then don a pair of magic glasses and walk around the image of the car he designed? What if he could get in, close the door, adjust the mirrors and play with the controls of this imaginary car?

Phil Little says it isn't a matter of "what if." It is a matter of "when." The technology is called virtual reality. And he intends to be ready for it.

Mr. Little is director of computer graphics for the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, a school that has turned out many prominent auto designers in the past four decades, as well as product designers and commercial artists.

The school has a whole roomful of sophisticated workstations with more advanced models and more sophisticated design software on the way. These machines can offer CCS graduates a taste of the latest in high-end computer-aided design techniques.

Mr. Little is excited, almost obsessed, by the prospects of "virtual reality." Still in its infancy, virtual reality is a term for computer-generated images, sensations and sounds to simulate the real world.

The magic glasses mentioned earlier are a tiny color computer monitor displaying the same image and adjusted to create an illusion of three dimensions -- a twist on the 3-D glasses once used by faddish moviegoers. With head-mounted sensors, users can turn their heads and see what is "behind" them. Looking up or down changes the image accordingly.

Virtual reality gloves and suits may some day enable a user to actually "feel" the world they see through their glasses.

But so far, it's all pretty crude. In current systems, the images are cartoonish, movement through the virtual world tends to be jerky, and nobody has managed to create devices that simulate the feel of the real world.

No matter. Mr. Little has ordered some virtual reality gear for CCS, including a pair of those special glasses from a West Coast firm, and he plans to have students help manufacture the school's own virtual reality bodysuits. He hopes some day CCS will offer a degree program in virtual reality design.


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