Aaron E. Walsh: Advocate of Virtual Reality

His work on the Media Grid is helping to advance education for those with disabilities.

Aaron E. Walshs spirits soar as he describes the radical changes virtual reality applications can make in the lives of individuals with disabilities. Sobering, however, are the first-hand accounts of VR addiction that Walsh, 37, has heard in his years as a Boston College faculty member and director of the Grid Institute an organization that promotes the use of a public utility grid to develop and deliver high-end virtual reality and 3-D simulation programs. The U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation, for example, uses Grid Institute technology to deliver games, music and videos to children through its Web site.

VR is a distinctly human experience, according to Walsh, who says he is regularly exhilarated and disheartened by the technology that he has worked so hard to advance. For instance, an inspired Walsh watched last year as a student who had enrolled in an immersive education course transcended brain injuries sustained in a firearms incident. Immersive education combines interactive 3-D graphics, commercial game and simulation technology, virtual reality, voice chat, Web cameras and rich digital media with online courses and classrooms.

In a VR world, physical limitations are irrelevant, says Walsh. Yet, a world without physical limitations isnt real, and some people who rely heavily on VR find it hard to distinguish between the virtual and real worlds. Each semester, students approach Walsh and say they cant cope with the prospect of working in virtual environments, fearing that they will lose control psychologically. Walsh uses the term virtual schizophrenia to describe the stress some users experience when they struggle to move between VR and the real world.

Ive seen VR addiction ruin the relationships and entire lives of individuals. This trend will only get worse as we see VR move beyond just cartoon images to realistic, Hollywood-movie-like interactions, says Walsh. Individuals likely to show signs of VR addictions tend to be those working on gaming applications, which can require a developer to get into character. Sometimes it can be difficult to step out of that VR character and back into real life, says Walsh.

However, we are quickly coming to a point where VR is becoming mainstreamed, and the availability of huge amounts of digital media will put our culture at a crossroads. I knew all of this before I got heavily involved with the technology, he says.

Walsh also realized early on that VR would forge ahead with or without him. Thus, he decided that with his eyes wide open, hed plunge in especially given the technologys potential for good. There is no question that even with all of this doom and gloom, VRs benefits far outweigh its risks, he says.

The decision to march into a crowded field and lead with his conscience is consistent with Walshs character, attests Boston College Dean Father James Woods. He realizes that if he doesnt do it, someone else will. But this doesnt bother Aaron. He invites others to share in his dream, Woods says.

Walshs dream now is to build up Media Grid, a VR computational platform established by Boston College in 2003. Specifically, Walshs Grid Institute serves as a standards organization and the commercial interface thats needed to spur the use of Media Grid, a patchwork of service providers that run rendering farms, computational clusters and high-performance computer systems.

I want to push VR forward, he says, but I want to put some conscience behind it.

McAdams is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. Contact her at JMTechWriter@aol.com.

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