Virtual PhotographyVirtual Photography When Images Become Real

Paul Martin Lester, Ph.D.
Department of Communications, H-230
Fullerton, California 92634
FAX: 657.773.2209



The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine. --J.B.S. Haldane, biochemist

As an experimental technology available within the well-financed halls of military installations, a few large universities and corporate institutions, virtual reality is quickly becoming known by the general public. It has recently been boosted by print and broadcast reports as the next major breakthrough in mass communications. It will allow architects to pre-plan their complicated structures by giving them the ability to "walk through" their buildings on the computer. It will be used as a tool for training future surgeons who will perform practice operations on virtual reality patients without the need for smelly cadavers. It has recently been introduced at some shopping mall arcades where for $1 a minute consumers can blast their computer-generated counterparts. The technology was featured in the movie The Lawnmower Man which detailed a futuristic story replete with virtual reality sexual interactions. Much has been promised from this new technology. Will virtual reality be the revolution in mass communications that some in the industry have forecast or will it disappoint consumers on the same scale as holography? The answers at this early stage in its development are far from readily available. What follows is a fictionalized account of the possible uses and problems that one may have to confront once virtual reality technology becomes common as a photographic teaching tool.

It's thirty minutes before Dr. Mark Premack's advanced photojournalism class. Premack, a tenured professor at a California, liberal-arts commuter school with about 25,000 students, walks through the darkroom - or at least what was once the photographic darkroom.

As he makes his daily inspection of the computer facilities, he thinks about the advances and changes that have occurred in the darkroom since he started at the school about ten years ago.

All but one of the enlargers are gone. Once in a while a student will be curious about working with traditional materials and uses an enlarger in a small darkroom in a separate area from the computer room, but those requests are rare. Occasionally Premack or the other instructor will print some 4x5 negatives, but there is little time, it seems, for such indulgences today. Premack smiles to himself - he still misses the smell of fixer. "If they could only come up with a spray that could be piped into the computer room," he thinks.

The dark is out of the darkroom now. The area is still called a darkroom perhaps out of respect for the old technology. Where the safe lights, running water, chemical trays and enlargers used to be is a brightly lit room with 50 desktop publishing computer workstations with fiber optic links throughout the world. Since all print and screen communication is now digital, the computers are shared with typography, graphic design, motion picture and television students. In addition, graduate students design educational lessons for commercial applications using the latest networked interactive multimedia technology.

As with traditional processing and printing, camera technology has also changed drastically in a little less than a decade. All but a handful of film-based cameras are gone. Digital video cameras have taken the place of all still photography cameras. As with professionals, students shoot their assignments with moving digital equipment and come to one of the desktop workstations. Students simply view their footage on a computer monitor and use the freeze frame feature to select a high resolution frame for publication. With picture manipulation software, the user changes the exposure, color, focus, cropping and can get a high quality print-out. There is one color film and one flat-bed print scanner collecting dust in a corner. "It seems we had to have those expensive items a few years ago," Premack thinks to himself, "but now that everyone uses digital cameras and students have access to digital image databases around the world, there is little use for scanner equipment."

Students have access to the latest versions of color image manipulation software. All of the traditional darkroom manipulations can be accomplished on the computer: exposure control, color correction, dodging, burning and cropping. Because of the computer software, there is an added benefit of being able to focus all or part of an image. Out of a concern for ethical issues, journalism students, however, have strict prohibitions against changing an image's content. The advertising and commercial photography students, of course, do not have those kinds of limitations as many of their images are highly manipulated works of art.

Each workstation is linked with the school newspaper's mainframe computer and printer so that pre-press completed art and graphic designs can be transferred directly. In addition, reporting and graphic design students have their own computer workstation rooms throughout the communications building, but every communications student can work, when there is not a class being conducted, on any of the computers on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, the workstations are linked to several word and image database services that provide, at a discounted rate for students, survey data, newspaper stories, library services, pictures, artwork and informational graphics on an almost unlimited number of subjects. All of these technological advances combined with the Supreme Court scandal that brought down the recent Administration have created a renewed interest in journalism with increased enrollment.

Premack walks into the area that was once the studio. Where light stands and props at one time cluttered the space, there is now only a single computer workstation in the center of the room. This computer set-up is more elaborate than the desktop publishing workstations in the other room because this one also contains a virtual reality workstation. Called a VR-2000 by the manufacturer, virtual reality technology has revolutionized the way students and professionals produce images for advertising and commercial purposes. Funding for this workstation, and the 11 in the multi-purpose room shared by photography, film and television classes, came from lottery money designated for education purposes and grants from the manufacturer and the software producers. Each workstation costs about $10,000. But each software program cost only about $100. The manufacturer saw tremendous success in the entertainment operation of its virtual reality machines at arcades and at homes and wanted to establish educational benefits for the technology. Consequently, the manufacturer provided similarly equipped virtual reality workstations at drastically reduced prices for five universities. Located at Premack's school and in Missouri, Texas, New York, and New Jersey, the five colleges are linked through optical fibers that keep all of the instructors up-to-date on successes and problems with the systems. Every year, the manufacturer sponsors a week-long conference that attracts international attendance where research papers about the new technology are read and the latest software programs are demonstrated.

Premack watches as a beginning commercial photography student uses the VR-2000 machine. He thinks how far virtual reality technology has progressed in just a few short years. When the technology was first introduced, companies produced war-type games for computer arcades in shopping malls in which players thought they were shooting at a computer-generated foe. Although initially engaging - the helmet and gloves that a user wears gave the illusion of real-time movement within a simulated computer environment -- most players were disappointed with the crude, stick-figure cartoon characters and the brightly colored, chalk-like backgrounds. The novelty soon wore off as players grew tired of the low-resolution graphics. Some were upset that with a particularly fast action, there would be a delay between a hand movement and what the player saw in the helmet's viewer.

A technological breakthrough in computer processing about five years ago caused renewed interest in the technology. Because of advances in using "liquid" crystal microchips and fiber optic technology, computers are able to process information at speeds approaching that of light itself. Combined with zigabyte storage systems, the programs of today, packed in a cassette about the size of a VCR tape, are much more realistic. Users can use pre-existing films and videotape combined with holographic effects for true, three-dimensional realism. There is life-like, real-time movement with no delays as in the earlier models. Interactions between the players and computer-generated characters and objects seem much more real because of the highly detailed graphics. There are even sensory detectors built into the gloves and leg wrappings so that a player has the sensation of actually holding an object -- the user can feel the weight of the object. There are also complex morphing effects, common in computer animation films for years, that enhance fantasy games -- the player can become and interact with any character stored within the computer's memory. The playing field itself is much improved as the backgrounds and foregrounds are almost completely realistic and can be changed at the whim of the user. One of the first popular programs for this next generation of virtual reality technology was bought by travel agents who could show their clients, like nothing imagined previously, what their vacation would be like. Another early use of virtual reality was from house builders and real estate agents who could walk their clients through homes that were not yet built.

Social scientists warned that players would think that these new and improved products would be mistaken for actual reality and become addicted. This technology, they argued, would further alienate society as members of a culture would prefer their computer-generated interactions to face-to-face contact. Because of the extreme cost of the technology, they warned, virtual reality would also drive a further wedge between those in society who could afford such new technological toys and those with less money to spend and who would become disenfranchised even further from society. Critics called virtual reality the "hallucinogenic of the next generation" because it would act like an addictive drug that altered a user's sense of reality. Religious leaders saw a threat from pornographic programs that would influence culture in negative ways.

Counter arguments were just as numerous. Psychologists argued that with every new technology there is a danger that some users will become addicted and isolate themselves from society. While it may be true that some addictive individuals have trouble, most players have no problems. These "alienated society" arguments, they explained, were the same charges leveled initially with radio, television, computers and even rock and roll music. All new forms of communication undergo an initial stage of social criticism until quality programs are introduced and the educational benefits of a new technology are clearly understood and disseminated among the citizens of a culture. This phenomenon is why the manufacturer of the VR-2000 invested a large amount of resources to permit educational institutions to experiment with the technology.

Premack has mostly positive opinions about this new form of communication. But after seeing a videotape of a young user at a computer arcade who had a nervous breakdown because he thought the images were too real and killed some actual customers waiting in line for their turn on the machine, Premack believes that virtual reality must be closely monitored. He and three of his colleagues introduced a number of failsafe mechanisms for the machine three years ago that have since been adopted. These failsafe devices include:

--Keyboard commands can be activated at all times during a session. Students can easily find the stop key on the computer keyboard and end the lesson.

--Monitors built into the helmet, gloves and leg wrappings chart brain activity, the pulse rate and the blood pressure of each student. The program automatically stops for the student if those measures become too high.

--There is an automatic time-out function that is set by the instructor. Premack sets the time at 15 minutes and doesn't think anyone should use the system any longer. After the time limit, all of the workstations end their programs.

--In order to remind users that they are only watching a glorified movie, a pressure sensitive device is located on the right-hand glove of every participant. It is a small bar that continuously applies intermittent pressure to the student's arm. As a check on reality, it is an annoying mechanism that all the students complain about, but reminds the user of the real reality outside of the program.

--There is a graphic display that is superimposed upon the picture that the student can read throughout the program. The messages flash a student's physiological condition, the time spent viewing the program, the actual time, and any message the instructor wants to add. Premack finds however that rather than typing a message on the keyboard, he can simply talk loudly during a lesson and the students will respond to his words. That way he doesn't have to take off his helmet to type a message.

--Finally, there is the gray zone. The gray zone is the edge of the program - where the graphics stop. It is that portion of the program that does not contain graphic illustrations. If a user looks at the extreme left or right side of the program, a clearly defined gray-colored area can be seen. At any time, a student can walk through the gray zone and end the program. In a group situation as during a class, any time one person walks through the zone, the program stops for everyone. Consequently, a student should not walk through the gray zone unless it is a real emergency.

The beginning advertising student in the studio with helmet, gloves and leg wrappings all hooked to her computer through wire connections, looks like a new-tech mime artist as she appears to be picking up real, yet unseen objects, setting them on an imaginary table, and taking pictures with an imaginary camera all within a circular railing that surrounds the student. Premack walks over to the computer monitor where he can see the image that the student sees through the helmet. She is working on a basic advertising picture assignment. On the computer screen, Premack can see that she is almost finished. Before she started the VR-2000 machine, she selected a number of props within the computer's directory, similar to the procedure for selecting clip art materials for a publication. The difference here is that the objects have three-dimensional shape and depth. The student places each selected object in a holding box where they can be accessed once she is hooked up to the virtual reality equipment. The student can also pre-set tables, counters, or stands for her props to rest upon, select backgrounds and foregrounds, decide upon lighting and color combinations, and even use objects that appear to be real people that act as models. What appeared to be a mime with wires attached, is actually the photographer taking objects out of the box and placing them on the table she selected. The background is composed of various pastel colors selected by the student. Advanced students use much more elaborate on-location scenarios that involve complicated arrangements of computer-generated models and objects.

She moves over to one of the virtual reality light stands and changes the position of a white umbrella. Now she takes a number of pictures at slightly different angles with her virtual reality camera. When she is satisfied with her picture taking, she'll take off the VR-2000 equipment, look at the images she made on the computer monitor, select one, manipulate it, perhaps add images from other photo sessions, and make a high-quality print-out. As Premack walks to the classroom, he smiles at the thought of the technology that makes these wonders possible.

He turns on the light for the classroom and sees the 11 VR-2000 players. Each student workstation contains a circular railing that the student stands within and a computer with a color monitor resting on a table beside the railing. For every station there is a helmet, two gloves and two leg wrappings with wire connections linking them with the computer. The separate student workstations look like the individual booths used for language instruction when he was a student. (Of course, language instruction uses VR-2000 workstations as well. With the software lessons, students are placed in a foreign country and must find a place to live, find a job, go out for dinner, etc.) Each student's workstation is linked with the instructor's computer which is networked to the university's mainframe system and ultimately linked to other computer installations around the world.

At the front of the room sits his workstation. It is almost exactly like the students' stations except for a bigger monitor and an expanded keyboard. He turns on his computer workstation. It takes a few minutes to boot up which gives him time to select a program for today's viewing. From a locked cabinet he sees the titles of the VR-2000 educational programs available to him. Since this virtual reality classroom is used by all of the sequence instructors for their students, there is a wide variety of software programs on the shelves.

It was about eight years ago that he first started to hear about virtual reality. When he asked other faculty members about it, most of them had never heard of the technology. Now as he reviews the lesson programs on the shelf, he realizes how valuable the technology is as a teaching tool. The television and film students can enter a sound stage and watch how a movie is made. They can also make their own films, record and edit them, and show their work on traditional projectors so everyone can view their work. The advertising students can sit in on an agency's meetings with clients and its creative team concerning a new product's campaign. They can even give their own input to the group. The public relations students have a lesson where they work for a large company that had a product that recently was responsible for a number of deaths. The students speak to the media and try to overcome the damage to the company's reputation that the product made. Journalism students have an elaborate role-playing lesson called, "Newspaper - 2000." In the simulation, students can take the role of a reporter, copy editor, graphic designer, section editor, managing editor, or publisher for a medium-sized newspaper. It's a big news day with many quick decisions needed from the students for this complicated virtual reality program. And finally, photocommunications students learn how to make their own virtual reality programs for entertainment, communication and educational purposes. Since the advent of virtual reality technology, the field of presentation graphics, as might be expected, has seen a tremendous growth with much student interest.

Premack's photojournalism students can work with journalism students on the newspaper simulation, work in the studio with the VR-2000 to create food, fashion or editorial illustrations, or take the role of a photographer in a number of different situations and assignments. For example, there is a lesson that teaches sports photography based on Super Bowl XXXI, where a dramatic come-from-behind win gave the Dallas Cowboys football team their third Super Bowl win in a row. The recent Cuban War is represented in a lesson so that students can experience the difficulties involved with taking pictures during war conditions. There is a lesson on shooting a rock concert which most students like because they enjoy the loud music, a lesson that takes students to a remote area of Alaska to complete a picture story on Native American fishermen, and the lesson Premack selects for today's class, the Budd Dwyer press conference and suicide. Although the event happened several years ago, Premack thinks it is an excellent example of a general news assignment, a press conference, that suddenly turned into a horrifying spot news assignment. It tells students that they must be prepared for any type of eventuality. And since this week the students are learning about spot news coverage, this is an excellent program choice. He takes it off the shelf, locks the cabinet, and slips the cassette into his VR-2000 player.

At the top of the hour, Premack's students come filing into the classroom and sit at the workstations. Out of the 10 in the class, eight of the students have worked on newspapers as interning staff photographers. This class is filled with serious photojournalism students. This is Premack's favorite class because the students are professional in their command of the technology and also are caring individuals who are concerned about the people they photograph. It is also the class where he's known the students the longest because for most, this is their last photography class before graduation. Although they receive a healthy dose of ethics throughout the curriculum, in this class they are challenged more than at any time in their coursework.

As he watches the students find their seats, he thinks, "I wonder if I'll have trouble with Hancock today?" Hancock is the exception. "If I were a secret service agent protecting the President on a campaign stop at the college," Premack thinks to himself, "I would focus most of my attention on this nervous, sloppily dressed student in the back of the room." Premack wonders if Hancock will make it as a photojournalist. One of the hardest things about teaching photojournalism is to tell a student that he or she might need to think about another profession. Yet Premack admires Hancock's creativity. Although he is not good around other people, as is necessary for a journalism career, he may do well in commercial or even art imaging. He could also become a computer systems operator for a newspaper or a college. He just needs to gain a bit more confidence.

After a few general announcements and the students have settled down, Premack explains what they are about to experience. A detailed description is necessary because of the problems in the technology when it was first introduced - some students became upset as it was too real for them. Besides, the Dwyer episode is an intense viewing experience that may easily upset the unprepared. Pennsylvania State Treasurer, Budd Dwyer had just been convicted of bribery. Journalists from several newspapers, news services and television stations gathered around a small podium that sat on a table expecting to hear Dwyer announce his resignation from state government. What they heard were the long, rambling last words of a seriously troubled man. Dwyer pulled out a .357 magnum, long barrel pistol, waved back reporters, stuck the revolver in his mouth, pulled the trigger and ended his torment before a stunned audience.

Even though his students have heard all of the instructions before, Premack finds it is to everyone's interest to go through the safety devices built into the system. Users should never forget that they are essentially watching a movie. He explains that if it gets a little too real, they can stop the lesson at any time or look the other way. They can try to prevent what is happening or use their cameras to record images of what they are witnessing. Each student's computer will record their images. After the lesson ends, the students can review the images on their computer monitor, pick their favorite, manipulate it, crop it, use it in a layout, print it out and turn it in.

Finally, Premack reminds them not to go through the gray zone unless there is an emergency because that ends the program for everyone. After they all seem to understand what is coming up, he tells them to start their computers and put on the equipment. He helps a couple of students adjust the straps on their helmets. After everyone is ready, Premack asks them to breathe deeply and calmly so that the computer can register their bodily signs. This procedure takes two minutes. Premack checks his computer's monitor to make sure he can see the output from every student. When all of his students are registered, he slips on his gear and starts the lesson.

Entering the virtual reality world is always a bit disorienting at first. It takes a few moments to get used to the view inside the helmet's monitor. The visual perspective is a bit wider than normal vision. Although the user is initially astounded at how real the scene appears, after a few moments, the newness wears off and the player can see inconsistencies. As with colorized black and white movies, sometimes the edges of objects bleed into adjoining objects contributing to a slightly unrealistic effect. Since none of the objects and people are real, a player can walk through any of them, although if a user goes through a person, the program automatically makes the computer character respond with an unflattering comment. Finally, there is the gray zone noticeable on either side of the scene that reminds the student that the vivid scene is a product of computer generated magic.

All of his students walk onto the press conference scene as if it were a set in a stage play. Dwyer is in the middle of his long, rambling speech at the front of the room behind a podium with many microphones attached to it. The room is crowded with reporters and photographers so his students, to get any good pictures, must weave their way between the computer-generated figures. All of the students have digital cameras around their necks and shoulder bags that contain an assortment of lenses supplied by the computer program.

Premack notices Hancock in the back of the room off to himself looking a bit bored. He goes over to him and says, "Shouldn't you start taking some pictures?"

"To tell you the truth," Hancock replies, "I got a copy of this tape from my bulletin board a couple of months ago. It's really gross. Can't I do something else?"

Always a trouble maker, Premack thinks. "Just hang out here in the back and watch the others. Why don't you take pictures of the others taking pictures?"

"Okay, that's an original idea," Hancock replies sarcastically. He makes an attempt at taking pictures, but he would clearly rather be anywhere else. He is standing next to the gray zone at the right-side of the room.

Premack cautions, "Don't get too close to the edge. I don't want you stopping the program, got it?"

"Yea, yea."

The lesson continues with Dwyer talking about his career as a public servant. Most of the students are now close to the podium along with the computer-generated still photographers and videographers. Suddenly Dwyer pulls out his gun. Even though Premack has seen this lesson several times, it is still a bit of a shock. There is some yelling and chaos among the spectators. One of his students tries to rush Dwyer and take the gun from him. Dwyer points the gun in his direction and waves him back. Premack makes a mental note to caution the student about trying that action in the real world. Suddenly there is a huge explosion as Dwyer shoots himself.

Premack happened to be watching Hancock when the shot fired. The sound of the blast so surprised him that he jumped back instinctively and fell into the gray zone. Expecting the program to end, Premack started working on his speech to chew out Hancock when it occurred to him that the program did not stop. Premack's curiosity is piqued when he realizes that something must be wrong with the software. He tells the other students to get out of the program and start editing their images. He's going into the gray zone and see what happened to Hancock.

Premack slowly walks through the gray zone. He is suddenly transformed into a light being as his body is immediately sucked into a tube of light. His body is no longer recognizable. He is a band of light traveling extremely fast through a kind of light highway. He realizes that he is moving along a fiber optic link between the school's computer and the network. He remembers that the school's network is linked with the supercomputer at Rutgers University. "Oh God. I hope I'm not going to New Jersey," he thinks to himself.

He is able to look around and see other bands of light with other light beings like himself flying through the network wires. He is aware that Hancock is in front of him on the same light-band highway. He likes this sensation of flying.

He calls out, "Hancock. Can you hear me?"

"Yea," Hancock quickly responds. "Isn't this cool? I think it's a bug in the program that lets you into the network. We're headed for the source."

Premack worries a bit about the students back in the classroom, but he's enjoying this new sensation too much to stop now.

Suddenly there's another, somewhat muffled voice, "Daddy. Daddy. Dinner's ready."

He knows the voice is not from Hancock or any of his students.

"Daddy. Dinner's ready."

It's his 11-year-old daughter, Allison.

"Okay, honey. I'll be right there," Premack answers.

He looks at Hancock and wonders if he should try to stop him. But then he thinks, "Screw Hancock. I'm hungry."

Premack touches the quit button on his keyboard and stops the program. The light highway pauses in mid-flight. A graphics display superimposes the words, "You have elected to quit. Do you want to save up to this point?" Premack presses the OK button on the keyboard. "Program saved under the previously named file: Premack3." Then the last words from the program are projected that always make Premack smile, "Thank you for playing the VR-2000: Photojournalism Adventure Game. Have a real day."

The screen goes blank. Premack slowly takes off his helmet, gloves and leg wrappings and steps out of the circular railing. He sets the equipment on his desk and turns on the lamp in his office. He sits down at his chair and rubs his eyes for a few moments, turns off the computer and walks downstairs.

His wife and daughter are already sitting around the dinner table.

"More trouble with Hancock," his wife, Roseanna asks with a smile.

"Yea," Premack answers with a laugh. "This time he really screwed up. He disappeared into the gray zone and I had to go in and find him. It was great. I was a flying beam of light."

Roseanna gives him a glass of milk and says, "You know, if your school could afford VR workstations for students, they would really learn a lot from the programs."

"I know. I know. Some day during my lifetime," Premack sighs. "Pass the peas, please."

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