Everyone knows about virtual reality: it’s about flying around buildings, adding excitement to arcade games, or, if you believe certain newspapers, your sex life. Apart from that it has always looked rather like a solution in search of a problem, with limited use in real business. But late last month, British Telecommunications Plc’s Professor Peter Cochrane – division manager of systems research at Martlesham – showed off the company’s work in the area, even the most esoteric of which has practical use. We’ve written before about the Professor’s dream of placing a couple of surgeons inside a patient’s gut, however this time around the term ‘virtual reality’ was broadened out. There are two ways to do things with virtual reality. The most popular way of using it mirrors some aspect of the outside world. It is this aspect that manifests itself in teleworking, or placing surgeons inside a patient, or a player inside a video game.
The alternative manifestation uses virtual reality as a way of representing data in ways that it would never appear in the outside world. It is this aspect that is less commonly considered, but which offers business potential benefits. This is nothing new – a graph, after all does exactly this, taking information and presenting it in an easily digestible, visual form, but what virtual reality does is to take the practice to its ultimate conclusion. Cochrane’s team is currently looking at how computer graphical user interfaces can be improved. To an extent,today’s graphical interfaces are already dabbling in this area: the Macintosh, NeXT and Unix front ends each have virtual desktops containing virtual folders in which can be found virtual pieces of paper. Over at Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Center, researchers have taken advantage of increasing processing power to unleash the ‘rooms’ metaphor, where the user stores data and programs in a building of their own construction. It must be stressed that none of these virtual reality implementations requires the total immersion techniques of stereoscopic goggles and data-gloves that true afficionados would expect, instead they rely on fancy graphics to produce purely visual metaphors. British Telecom’s contribution to graphic user interfaces is The emotional icon: the user is confronted with a three-dimensional plain on which solid shapes are sitting, which may represent data, or programs, or network nodes – it doesn’t matter. What does matter is how the shapes react when you approach them.
There is, for example the defensive icon which sprouts an evil-looking spikey barrier as you fly towards it – it is possible to enter the icon, but it’s not easy: you need to make a conscious effort to fly up and over the spikes, before plunging down from above. There are nervous icons that begin to quiver like jelly, and friendly ones that try to attract your attention by jumping up and down like an anxious pupil at the back of the class. So far so cute, but is there really a practical application? According to Cochrane, there is. Take the Macintosh interface for example: the user tries to do something really stupid such as format the Mac’s hard disk, the machine will flash up a warning dialogue box. The problem is, says Cochrane, that it flashes the warning only after the user has already acted dangerously. The resulting delay and break in concentration is one of the main problems with existing interfaces, says Cochrane: how much better if the user could tell at a glance what may be sensible or stupid decisions. The human brain is designed specifically to recognise things at a glance, so linking emotional icons to simple artificial intelligence programs should aid decision-making, especially when there is a lot of fast-changing information to absorb. And this this is why British Telecom is interested, of course. A possible application is in real-time network management, where existing network maps are very good at displaying faulty nodes but bad at suggesting a fix. With artificially intelligent emotional icons coupled to a
three-dimensional map of the network, the manager should be able to fly around his or her territory looking for ways to re-route traffic from the faulty node. A single glance should give immediate information as to which nodes could take over (they’ll be the eager ones bouncing up and down) and which, on being tampered with would immediately cut off half the subscribers in Birmingham (they’re the keep-away-from-me spikey ones). To this end, British Telecom has already developed a fly-through version of its network, although the emotional icons have yet to be added in. The Martlesham workers say that we could expect to see such interfaces grafted on to British Telecom’s Concert network management system within the next three years.
Technically there is little to prevent it. The graphical demonstrations were carried out on ordinary 80486-based personal computers, and presumably the artificial intelligence input could come from a back-end server somewhere. What about cultural problems? Even today, some network managers admit that their smart two-dimensional maps are mainly used to impress bosses and that most work is carried out from the command line interface. The demonstrators partially admit this, saying that the three-dimensional fly-though stuff will appeal most to higher level managers and marketeers. On the other hand, they claim that the approach makes it much easier for a group of people to work co-operatively on a problem, since one person can instantly see and understand what the other is up to. It is the emotional icons that have the greatest potential, since they mark the first use of virtual reality to present totally abstract data in a way that is instantly recognisable, rather than for mirroring the real world.