Multimedia futures and how NY police are using it today

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 05/90 item 03 - scanned

You should have seen some of the stuff they were showing us at the Multimedia Expo in New York. They've been experimenting with sticking the user right inside the computer. Imagine that, being inside and being able to see and touch things that don't really exist, except as figments of' some program's imagination.

We know that we can interact with programs on the surface of the screen. We do it all the time with mice, keyboards and touch screens, for example. Well, there are now companies around who capture your image with a movie camera, digitise it and stick it on the screen. I know that's no big deal, but then the computer program watches where your outline is and if it touches anything already on the screen, it triggers an action.

For example, Vivid Effects of Toronto had a screen with bells on it. They were hung from the top of the screen and from the sides. You stood in the space in front of the screen, the camera was on top, and simply reached out to ring a bell. In seconds you're playing music. At the touch of a button, the bells could be replaced with a drum kit or a harp. Other applications/games included you being a goalkeeper or you being able to take up body painting, simply by choosing colours and writhing around. I tell you, it was great fun watching full grown businessmen making complete fools of themselves. 'To the casual observer, they appear to be just prancing around, it's not immediately clear that they're watching their actions being reproduced on the screen. At the moment a system like this costs a fortune - from $15,000 - but its creator, Vincent John Vincent, is working towards a $300 game console.

Getting deeper into the machine is AutoDesk - the creators of AutoCAD. It can already create three dimensional, fairly realistic images with AutoCAD and AutoShade. The next stop has to be to get the user inside the models. Imagine if you have designed a beautiful house, wouldn't it be great if the would-be owners could walk around it before it's built? You could adapt it to meet the buyer's needs precisely.

Well, with the use of a 'helmet', which is really a pair of oversized goggles containing miniature television screens and a head position sensor, the user can receive a stereoscopic image which gives the illusion of being inside the house.

A thing called a ' dataglove' can be worn so that the user's hand movements can be interpreted into the movements of a simulated hand within the three dimensional image. If the user pretends to pick up a chair and move it, this actually happens within the image.

AutoDesk is driving competitors crazy with what they see as this 'blue sky' project. The fact remains that the company has already had over a thousand users 'under the helmet' since the project research began in 1989. Company director Eric Lyons pretends to be worried that Cyberspace, the name given to the product, will become the next social drug - he suggests some kind of digital Armageddon. I think he exaggerates. But I'm more inclined to believe his assertion that this kind of three dimensional interaction with computers will be commonplace within five years, and that today's desktop simulation will be dumped in flavour of a real world metaphor.

At a more practical level, I wandered down to the District Attorney's Office to see some video-conferencing in action. It might not have been three-dimensional but, by golly, it was useful. Before the video-conferencing system was installed, officers, witnesses and victims had to traipse down to the DA's office to make their statements face to face with an assistant DA then wait for the depositions to be typed so they could sign them. Most witnesses didn't bother to turn up and the police officers frequently made arrests late in their shift, so they'd be hanging around the DA's office in overtime.

By installing a camera, a screen, a microphone and a loudspeaker at the precinct and at the DA's office, face to face interviews could take place over the video link. A computer called a 'codec' (coder/decoder) is used to interpret the changes in the video image and to compress it ready for transmission down a 384K BPS telephone line. Another codec at the other end expands the signal and feeds it to the video screen. Police time wasn't wasted because they could carry out other precinct duties until it was time to appear on the link. Witnesses and victims could be interviewed immediately after an arrest. The authorities saved a fortune in overtime and the cases were stronger for having examined the witnesses before they vanished.

These are all glimpses of the near future which, I have no doubt, will soon be available on a Macintosh near you.