Virtual reality so realistic, it makes your palms sweat

Don't assume that all virtual reality looks pixelated and choppy. Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab creates lifelike environments.

My husband travels a lot. Often abroad, and frequently to China.

Naturally, I miss my darling husband while he's away on business, but I'd have no problem with all the travel if it weren't for the fact that we have two -- what's the euphemism these days? Ah yes, "spirited"! -- young children.

Solo parenting is back-breaking labor, and I bow down to single parents everywhere who do it.

I'm eagerly awaiting the era of teleportation to do away with those week-long stretches when I'm outnumbered by my shorties (OK, hold the violins, I know this isn't truly tragic), but sadly that's unlikely to happen in my lifetime.

Which is why I was encouraged when the SmartPlanet video team visited the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. The lab creates a more realistic virtual reality environment through the use of technology that provides specific sensory input.

See what we found, here:

[video=6345051]

When I asked lab founder Jeremy Bailenson to describe how virtual reality will be used in the future, he told me that one of the most important applications of virtual reality will be to eliminate travel. If I can curl up on the couch with my laptop, but feel like I'm sitting at a conference table across from someone who's physically in Bangalore, why would I fly halfway across the globe, spend thousands of dollars and subject myself to a TSA checkpoint?

It's true that teleconferencing technology exists today to address this very purpose. I was impressed when I used TelePresence at Cisco, but that setup is prohibitively priced, at least for the average person. (And yes, I get the need to press the flesh. But for many meetings, this could be a real alternative.)

In case you're wondering, my palms truly did get sweaty when I "walked the plank" for this shoot. Once you don the head-mounted display, you first feel a little top-heavy -- but then you feel completely immersed. When the researcher in the control room pushed a button, and the floor literally dropped away (leaving only the skinny plank), I couldn't rationalize away my clammy palms, even though I knew it was all computer-generated. It's visceral.

The woman you see shadowing me and our production assistant in the video was there to make sure we didn't actually lose our balance. Good thing, too -- our poor production assistant nearly fell. Fortunately, my frightened squeals were left on the cutting room floor.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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