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Alexandria, Va. -- We fly like a cruise missile, skimming over the green-blue gulf toward Kuwait City, swooping past the minaret-style Kuwait Towers and down the coastline to the U.S. Embassy. Slowing to a stop for a look around, we whirl and speed off to Kuwait International Airport.

Then a clumsy reporter takes the softball-shaped joystick and we blunder through the windows of an apartment tower. At one point, our craft plunges below the ground and we find ourselves peering up at the boxy, cartoon-like cityscape through the suddenly-transparent earth.

But my co-pilot, a 48-year-old computer engineer named Robert Leigh Clover, just grins. That's because we're not in any aircraft. We're nowhere near the real Kuwait. In a sense, we are not even in the physical world.

Welcome to the Pentagon's window on virtual reality -- also known as artificial reality or cyberspace. This fledgling computer technology creates video images of three-dimensional landscapes and permits the properly-equipped observer to seem enter, move through and manipulate these digital realms.

Navy Cmdr. Dennis K. McBride, the 38-year-old head of Warfighting Simulation for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA), says the Army last year rushed to compile virtual reality re-creations of battlefields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. The idea was to give Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other Desert Storm commanders the power personally to scout the terrain and deployment of enemy forces.

The effort, called Project Odin, wasn't completed in time for use in the Persian Gulf War, which ended a year ago this week.

Still, Commander McBride, a rail-thin engineer, predicts that future battles will be planned, rehearsed and executed in cyberspace before a shot is fired in anger. Engineers will drive, fly and test-fire weapons not yet built. And special operations forces will practice undercover missions in detail, he says, "right up to the point they kick in the back door of the American Embassy."

Coupled with future advances in artificial intelligence, he says, the technology could also give military commanders directing combat the chance to test potential tactics by "fast-forwarding" the battle scene, obtaining the computer's best guess as to what will happen in the next ten minutes or ten hours.

Some civilian experts, meanwhile, think the military's interest in virtual reality could hamper efforts to develop commercial, consumer and scientific applications -- steering the technology away from civilian designs by pouring money and brainpower into combat research. There is fear, for example, that the military's standard for computer simulation software is too specific and inflexible for easy use in the civilian sector.

"We can have a really great military virtual reality, but if we have a Japanese virtual reality in technology in our homes, what have we gained?" asked Robert Jacobson, associate director of the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory.

And some researchers muse that someday, if virtual warfare becomes too realistic, it might be hard to tell the difference between training exercises and actual combat. Life and death decisions might be made casually. Or warriors might search desperately for the "escape" button in the midst of fierce combat.

Our flight over Kuwait City took place in the Simulation Center of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a defense department think tank with its headquarters in a suburban office complex here. Classified research and development is done elsewhere: this center is designed to demonstrate virtual reality to top Pentagon brass and elected officials.

By the standards of some civilian laboratories, the Simulation Center's equipment is low-tech: a desk, a couple of computer terminals, the softball-shaped controller and a bank of three 50-inch televisions.

A key piece of hardware is missing: the television goggles called "Head Mounted Displays," which provide the wearer with a wide-angle, stereoscopic view of the virtual world. A tracking device follows head movements so when the wearer turns, his view of the scene shifts.

(One center employee said they figure most senators and generals probably wouldn't like wearing the headgear, which offers low video fidelity anyway).

The Pentagon's biggest beachhead in the virtual world is probably a computer network, called Simnet, that connects a number of simple tank simulators at far-flung military bases, allowing them to skirmish on digital battlefields. Aviation Week reported in September that Simnet's "fidelity was too low for realistic tank training," and the Army is shopping for a more sophisticated system.

Eventually, the Pentagon hopes to develop a richly-detailed and inexpensive system that will allow computers to stage large-scale military maneuvers, which could be executed without spending any money on fuel, spare parts or ammunition.

In the civilian world, interest in virtual technology is booming.

At NASA's Ames Research Center in California, earth-bound astronauts wearing television-equipped goggles and an electronic control glove can "fly" over a three-dimensional surface of Mars, re-created in cyberspace with data from space probes.

At the University of North Carolina, medical researchers using similar equipment have been able to enter a virtual human body and try to design new pharmaceuticals by fitting pieces of basketball-sized virtual molecules together.

Several firms are developing virtual reality as entertainment. Autodesk Inc. of California is working on creating a "Cyberspace Playhouse," defined as "a new kind of social gathering place where people go to participate in three dimensional simulations." The kind of place, for example, where two people in different cities might play virtual racquetball.

Some of those developing peaceful uses for the technology agree virtual reality could profoundly enhance man's capacity to comprehend, and thus wage, war.

"The crucial thing about cyberspace is that it employs the whole human body," says Randal Walser, head of the Cyberspace Project at Autodesk. "Other methods emphasize the mind. But with cyberspace, you kind of get an understanding of the whole situation deeply, with your gut. It helps you see things you never would have seen, understand things you never would have understood."

Mr. Walser once worked on an Army project that used virtual reality to try to create simulated "smart tanks," robots that could maneuver around, report on and destroy enemy armor in combat.

"Frankly I got out of that business because I wasn't real keen on military applications," Mr. Walser says. "It started to frighten me because the possibilities are awesome. There's no question that the military has a lot to gain."

Commander McBride agrees the technology has vast potential.

He predicted that computer scientists will re-create future battlefields in three-dimensions, right down to individual weapons and buildings, based on the latest maps and reconnaissance photos. "DARPA's goal is to have any spot on earth digitized, vegetized and populated within 48 to 72 hours," he says.

Military strategists, he says, will then fly over the computer-generated theater of war, see where the enemy's tanks and troops are located, inspect individual weapons and, perhaps, even look back at friendly troops from the viewpoint of an enemy tank.

Depending on the how up to date the intelligence is, Commander McBride says, the digital image of the battlefield might be only a few minutes old. (Presumably this would require data from satellites, although no one connected with DARPA or Institute for Defense Analyses wanted to comment on that.)

DARPA also hopes to link these digital battlefields with artificial intelligence systems now being developed as part of a three-year program, Commander McBride says.

The aim is to enable military leaders directing troops in combat to "field test" different tactics by advancing the computer picture of the battlefield ten minutes or ten hours into the future.

Simulator technology is not new. Commercial airlines have trained pilots in sophisticated flight trainers for years.

U.S. pilots "flew" over digitized three-dimensional maps of Iraq and Kuwait before their bombing missions during the opening phase of Desert Storm, Commander McBride says. But, he says, they could only watch the ground flow past, not maneuver their virtual aircraft, during these rehearsals.

"This is the cutting edge," he says, gesturing around the Simulation Center.

Even the low-fidelity Simnet system can trigger an adrenalin rush, military officials say.

In one Simnet exercise, Commander McBride says, a Marine helicopter pilot at Fort Rucker, Ala., was supposedly headed over the Mediterranean toward a simulated North African coastline when his virtual aircraft ran low on fuel. He reacted correctly, though emotionally, barking to the carrier Wasp to clear the decks for an emergency landing, he says.

Some Wasp crew members, who were staring at their computer-controlled radar screens in the ship's combat communications center, apparently forgot it was all make believe. "A couple of guys actually went up on deck to watch him land," Commander McBride says with a smile.

Robert Leigh Clover, the Simulation Center's senior operations analyst, says virtual reality could be used to test most new weapons systems -- such as "smart mines" which only blow up around certain vehicles -- while they are still just a concept.

The Pentagon, Commander McBride notes, spent more than $1.8 billion developing the Sergeant York radar-guided anti-aircraft gun, designed to shoot Soviet helicopters. But the weapon proved ineffective and was abandoned in 1985.

"The Sergeant York would have failed our test early on with this technology," he asserts.

Warren Robinett, a researcher with the University of North Carolina's computer science department, says the hardware has improve significantly before virtual reality can become a useful military tool.

But assuming that the technology does advance dramatically, he says, "it brings up a lot of interesting questions. What if you couldn't tell the difference? What if you couldn't tell it was a simulated world?"

Aviation Week reported that there is resistance to building virtual reality-style simulators into actual combat aircraft, tanks and other weapons because it might interfere with combat operations. One computer firm executive was quoted as saying he wouldn't want a pilot "to press the 'freeze' button when he's in trouble at 500 feet."

Mr. Robinett says in one science fiction novel, cadets at a military academy of the future are told their final examination will consist of simulated combat with alien invaders. They defeat the invaders only to find they were actually flying remote-controlled fighters and "wiped out the only other intelligent race in the universe."

Computer worlds so real they get confused with the real thing?

"It's definitely possible," Mr. Robinett says.

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