University of Toronto
Department of Computer Science

A Distinguished Lecture on Computer Science

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.

Is There Any Real Virtue in Virtual Reality?


In 1965 Ivan Sutherland stated the goal for research in computer graphics: to immerse the user in virtual worlds that look real, sound real, feel real, and behave properly as the user interacts with them. This simple program has driven computer graphics research ever since.

Two scientific questions command the attention of the serious researcher in virtual worlds:

1. Can we make systems that will give the realistic simulated experience described in Sutherland's challenge?

2. If we can, so what? What worthy tasks can the user of such tools accomplish that cannot be accomplished as well without them? Why should a computer scientist consider this as a field for serious research?

On the first question, immense strides have been made over the past 35 years, and the field seems to be within striking distance of the goal. Or, to put it another way, the virtual environments technology now works, but barely. Today's research can be summarized under four categories: Make the virtual environments systems more realistic, faster, handier, and more faithful in model accuracy.

We at Chapel Hill are tackling each of the key technical problems: faster image generation; wider-range low-lag tracking; high-resolution see-through head-mounted displays; better devices and paradigms for interaction with the world; and measurement of the effectiveness of the virtual-environment illusion.

So what? We are testing the usefulness of virtual-worlds techniques in a variety of driving-problem applications: protein folding and docking; image-ultrasound visualization; architectural simulation; telecollaboration; and nanomanipulation at molecular resolution.

We argue that IA>AI (intelligence amplification is better than artificial intelligence.) We argue that building mind-machine synergistic systems is a central concern of computer scientist, and that an intimate interface between mind and machine is crucial.

At this stage we have very few proofs, some exciting working systems, and lots of faith.


Dr. Frederick P. Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month, received the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) 1999 A. M. Turing Award, considered the "Nobel Prize of Computing." In 1994, he was the first recipient of ACM's Allen Newell Award. He won ACM's Distinguished Service Award in 1987 and the IEEE's John von Neumann Medal in 1993. In 1995, he received the Franklin Institute's Bower Award and Prize in Science, which carried a $250,000 prize. A decade earlier, he was in the first group of engineers to receive the National Medal of Technology, presented by President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, he received UNC-Chapel Hill's Thomas Jefferson Award, which goes to a person who best exemplifies the ideals and objectives of Jefferson.

Host: contact Prof. Gotlieb for information on the speaker's schedule.

Time and Location: Monday, May 14th, 11am. GB119

There will also be an open meeting for students to talk with Prof. Brooks on Monday, May 14th, 3pm in Pratt 378.

R. J. Miller
Last modified: Wed May 2 14:09:27 EDT 2001