July 31, 2018
“GIRL TO GORILLA!” the banner across the carnival tent proclaimed. “See a beauty transform into a raging beast, right before your eyes,” a barker shouted as he sold tickets. Despite already having parted with much of our precious allowance for admission into the county fair, my friends and I forked over more to see the “real, live, ape girl.”
Inside the tent was a cage. Inside the cage was a woman. She looked like she had recently been living in the wild—messy hair, tattered clothes smudged with dirt. She was pacing, hunched over, agitated. People were crammed in, shoulder to shoulder, murmuring and laughing nervously. My gang of tweens and I were too short to see over them, so we sidled our way to the front. The carny called for quiet, explained the woman’s freak-of-nature, evolution-gone-wrong backstory and warned expectant mothers or anyone with a weak heart to leave. Then he began to put the girl into a trance that would facilitate her transformation. A hush fell over the crowd as he chanted to the beat of bongos.
For a few tense moments, nothing happened, and then, right before our eyes, the woman straightened up and screamed as her body seemed to shift and sprout hair. Her scream turned into a roar as the lights dimmed then flashed, and fog rolled in. The woman appeared to be replaced by an ape, and it was angry. We heard the sound of an electrical short and white smoke began to fill the tent as the gorilla banged on the bars of its cage. Some people in the crowd were already screaming and running, but the mass exodus didn’t occur until the cage’s door gave way and the beast sprang out, thumping on its chest.
The Importance of an Immersive Experience
The ape-girl illusion is a classic by carnival sideshow standards. If there aren’t virtual reality versions of it yet, there should be. My friends and I had a shared experience, even though the event we were experiencing wasn’t real. From that perspective, it wasn’t much different than today’s multiplayer video games or sharing designs in a virtual environment.
As immersive design technologies continue to improve via foundational advancements in wireless bandwidth, battery life and haptic feedback, current (and amazing) visualization technologies will continue to become more affordable and accessible. It’s already possible for any design engineering team to use visualization technologies to catch system design errors, determine surface finishes, see what a model looks like in its intended environment, test ergonomics and gauge end users’ reactions to a design. You may think of the last point as being the domain of the marketing department, but—just as technology advancements have brought other disciplines closer together—visualization technologies are expanding and merging previously siloed product design and development workflows.
Don’t Fear the Future
In the near future, computer-generated imagery will be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. Immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality, photorealistic rendering and even the artificial intelligence assistant that Google demonstrated live at its developer conference in May already have the ability to fool us. Google Assistant called and made a haircut appointment, mimicking a human voice and responding to questions so well that the person on the other end of the phone apparently had no idea they were not talking to an actual person. It caused quite a bit of concern about AI’s ethical and social implications.
Like any tool, those responsible for creating immersive environments can and will misuse them, as even a casual perusal of the many debunked or verified images and videos on snopes.com will show. The “don’t believe everything you read” mantra of previous generations has already grown to encompass photos, audio and video. After this initial wave of gullibility passes, people will become more skeptical, more apt to look a bit harder at that gorilla to see the mask and seams of the suit. We shouldn’t let fear of misuse impede the many societal benefits of immersive technologies.
It may seem natural for engineers to look at visualization as something less than CAD, as not true geometry, and therefore not as important. However, the power of an immersive, shared experience to promote collaboration and inform design should not be underestimated.