It's so real, it's unreal, claim cyber engineers

Millions of Internet addicts who devote hours to “virtual reality” existences on websites such as Second Life will soon be able to enjoy a physical experience of cyberspace through “avatars”.

Davos delegates heard from some of the world’s top technologists yesterday. So-called “haptic” interfaces allowing sensory feedback from virtual worlds could become available within months, John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems, the leading US technology group, and Mitchell Kapor, a consultant and former scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told World Economic Forum participants.

Such haptic devices already exist in very specialised applications, such as surgery simulation. High-tech devices allow doctors to have a physical sensation almost identical to that they would experience if they were actually wielding a scalpel, Mr Gage said. “I’ve done this,” he said. “As you push in, it is exactly what a real surgeon would feel as you probe the brain. No words can describe this.”

But Mr Gage and Mr Kapor said that it was likely to be possible very soon to create much more widely available devices allowing physical experiences of virtual worlds. Mr Kapor said this development was being hastened by Second Life’s decision to make its computer programming code available to any software developer.

There was laughter among delegates as Mr Gage added: “The moment the haptic interface works in Second Life, the porno industry is going to double!” Another delegate noted that the “sex part” of Second Life, with users living out fantasies, is already one of its biggest earners.

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