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Virtual Miracles: VR Frees Trapped Minds

By Howard Rheingold

control small mobile robots.

Warner is young, long-haired, casual, frenetic, and very much a performer in the service of his crusade. I first saw him give his presentation in the Brucknerhaus at the annual Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria -- Europe's most prestigious digital art and communication show. He paced across the stage, cracking jokes and puns, waving his remote control, stand-up comedy style. The serious Linz audience didn't know what to make of him. Then he started showing the slides and videos.

"We are extending these children's bodies into information space, because they have no ability to move around in real space," Warner said, switching back into serious medical neuroscientist mode as he introduced "Andy," ten years old, who takes minutes to say "change TV station." With a specially-constructed input device, he can use his facial muscles to perform intricate maneuvers in VR -space, using only his facial muscles. The smile on his face after he flies his mind through a virtual world says it all.

This work goes beyond entertainment, education, and sheer joy for children who have too little. The virtual world could grant these trapped minds miraculous freedom and power to control the real world. Warner has been experimenting with a miniature robot car equipped with a camera and mechanical hand. Andy can steer the "fetch-bot" around the room and use it to retrieve objects. It is not out of the question to hope that some day Andy might be able to work in a factory or as an artisan or craftsman.

VR shows promise as Return to the Tomorrow top page.

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