As the chapters of this book have noted, synthetic environment (SE) systems present a number of highly challenging scientific and technological research problems that, in an ideal and unconstrained funding environment, could be supported solely on the basis of intrinsic scientific interest. However, the funding environment is hardly unconstrained. Policy makers are more concerned with the promise of applications to areas of national need or economic significance than they are with the purely scientific or technical promise or potential in a given area of investigation. Cognizant of this priority, researchers are often tempted to promise a cornucopia of applications even when the state of the art does not permit realization of these applications. Avoiding the hyperbole that leads to a later fall is thus of paramount importance.
Both virtual environments (VE) and augmented reality pose challenging intellectual problems and also evidence considerable potential for a wide variety of applications; however, with few exceptions (one of which is entertainment), serious commercial applications (as opposed to research demonstrations of concept feasibility and promise) are likely to be realizable only in a long-term time frame—perhaps 5 to 10 years. This is not to say that meaningful progress cannot be demonstrated in a shorter time frame—only that according to the metric of commercial viability, major economic and social benefits are not expected to be demonstrated in the near future.
Teleoperation, in contrast, has already been used extensively in a variety of activities, including handling nuclear materials, operating heavy machinery, exploring space, performing underwater inspections, and removing hazardous waste. Furthermore, there are a number of experimental programs in which the use of teleoperation is being explored for surgery, patient monitoring, and delivery of remote treatment. Although teleoperation technology can provide many potential benefits, it has not, to date, been demonstrated to have a high commercial value.
That said, the scientific and technical study of SE is entirely compatible with a tight integration between research and applications development. The history of SE suggests that many interesting research problems in the field have arisen from difficulties faced by applications developers concerning, for example, perception, motion sickness, and software development for real-time interactive systems.
Given that applications-oriented work in areas of national need is appropriate, it is important to choose judiciously which applications should be singled out for near-term attention. An important consideration in this choice is the fact that the entertainment industry has been the primary driver of nonfederal work in VE. For all practical purposes, this industry has supported the development of low-cost, low-performance proprietary hardware and software. This suggests that federal efforts