IT IS A HARD WORLD IN WHICH WE live, and that's a fact, but we know -- we know -- there remain among you those sentimental traditionalists for whom New Year's would not be New Year's without an opportunity to look forward to the wonders of the future. You are the gentle stalwarts of one of America's finest traditions, God bless you, and we in this magazine refuse to dim your cheer. So stand by. We have news to gladden your hearts:
Satisfactory sex, in a form that could be transmitted long-distance, by computer, could be available as early as the year 2050.
I am not -- in the immortal words of Dave Barry, whose work usually occupies this space -- making this up. The news comes courtesy of Thomas A. Furness and Robert Jacobson, director and associate director, respectively, of the Human Interface Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle. The Human Interface Lab -- among the hottest, blue-sky, way-out-there computer labs in the world -- is in the business of inventing "virtual reality," about which more in a nonce. What these guys don't know about our futures is not worth knowing.
I called Furness last month, as it happens, to inquire about the future of cities. The most important function of cities throughout time has been to make it easy for humans to have face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact is important, it turns out. Remember how computers were supposed to have everybody working out of their homes? Hasn't happened as predicted. Too lonely. What's more, computers have a fatal flaw. Some truly important information -- such as the answer to the question "Can I trust this guy?" -- seems inherently uncomputerizable. Therefore, cities of some kind probably have a future. You need to bring people together in a place they can do lunch.
Except, perhaps, maybe -- unless there is something to this "virtual reality" idea.
Virtual reality, at least theoretically, is the generating of a computer-created apparition or simulacrum, long distance, that is so startlingly similar to what a human would normally perceive as everyday, concrete, physical reality as to be almost indistinguishable from it. Furness and Jacobson believe there will be some stunning examples of virtual reality available in the next 10 years. They view it as certain, for example, that the technology will soon be available to allow a human being to generate a three-dimensional representation of himself that could sit at a conference table in a distant city and participate in a meeting. Every time the real human moved, or spoke, or rubbed his eye, this apparition could transmit the gesture faithfully.
Further down the line they see the day in which two architects might collaborate, one in Seattle, the other in D.C. The computer would not only present the simulacra of these two architects in virtual reality, but it would also generate a three-dimensional model of the building they are trying to design. The architects' electronic simulations of themselves could walk through the building in virtual reality and, if they decided they didn't like a wall, command the computer to move it by simply shoving it out of the way.
But this is still child's play. Eventually, the sense of touch will be added. A distant human will wear some sort of sensing device, a kind of glove perhaps. When he reaches out with his hand, his distant simulacrum will be able to reach out and touch something genuinely real. The feel of that distant object will be transmitted back to the real human. When the simulacrum pats somebody on the shoulder, both the real human present and the remote human operating through his simulacrum will feel the warmth of the touch.
All this will be no small technological accomplishment, of course. One major headache will be the size of the electronic pipeline required. A good personal computer today can transmit 2,400 bits of information per second. Such a machine is referred to as having a 2,400-baud modem. A good virtual reality simulacrum with a hand that can transmit feeling will require a baud rating tens of thousands of times greater than that. But Furness and Jacobson say it can be done.
Listening to them predict one mind-blowing miracle after another, I racked my brain. Surely there must be some aspect of human life that will present the ultimate challenge -- one their technologies will never, ever be able to handle.
That is how we wound up on the subject of computer coupling, causing Furness to note -- casually -- that "satisfactory sex will require 3 billion baud."
He had already done the arithmetic.
He'd actually sat down and figured out how many polygons of information would be required in order to re-create the tactile sensations and the visual images and the aroma and so forth, and multiplied how many bits of information that would represent, and calculated how many times per second that information would have to be refreshed in order for the experience to seem realistic.
Three billion baud should do it, he allowed. About a million times more transmission capacity than today's personal computer. Might be 60 years or so before the day arrives.
I didn't have the guts to ask him all the implications. But a few readily suggest themselves. How about: "Gee, you must have the wrong number."
Or: "We're not home right now, but if you'd care to leave . . ."
Or, worse yet: "Honey, it's for you."
Who says the future holds nothing to look forward to?
Joel Garreau is a Post senior writer and the author of Edge City, to be published in the new year by Doubleday.