Making Virtual Reality a Reality


Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

By Grace Raver
BU News Service 

If you’re a “gamer” you’ve probably already heard of Oculus Rift, but for those of you who don’t necessarily gravitate toward the digital arts let me break it down real quick.

Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset that gives the user a fully immersive 3D experience that has never been available to the public before. Intended to enhance the way videogames are played, the gadget got its jumpstart on the website Kickstarter and then Facebook acquired the parent company, Oculus VR, for 2 billion dollars. Videos of grandmas using the headset have already gone viral on YouTube.


But Oculus Rift isn’t the only product on the scene anymore. Google just invested 500 million dollars in a technology called Magic Leap. Magic Leap’s CEO, Rory Abovitz, claims that not only is his product more realistic than Oculus Rift but that virtual reality is an out of date term and what they are creating is “cinematic reality.”



The main difference in technologies is that Magic Leap can project virtual images onto the eye so that they appear in the viewer’s real world, instead of an alternate world you see through goggles. With the continuing development of Google Glass it’s obvious why Google might want to get its hands on this technology.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is all exciting technology, but I worry about what this means for the future of our real reality. Whatever happened to simply using your imagination? I know that this technology would make images more vivid and realistic but they’re still someone else’s creations.

Magic Leap advertisement
Magic Leap advertisement

A child’s use of imagination can have an important impact on his or her cognitive skills, and being creative is a trait encouraged throughout life. When we learn about history or picture a future event, we use our imagination to build that imagery and we develop those skills when we’re young.

Maybe we’re moving to a future where these imagination skills aren’t so necessary. Maybe our future children will have virtual reality history lessons where they won’t need to envision anything themselves. But picturing historical events isn’t the only benefit to developing minds.

In a 2012 study by Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, found that creative individuals such as Nobel Prize winners or MacArthur foundation “genius” grant awardees engaged in childhood games and make-believe worlds more frequently than control group individuals in their same field.

Imagination games also aid in a child’s emotional development, especially when it comes to self-regulation. A 2006 study out of Illinois State University suggests that when children engage in make-believe play they naturally tend to take on different roles and perspectives. This allows the child to deal with situations of aggression, delayed gratification, civility, and empathy.

If virtual reality will be part of the development of future generations, we should start thinking about what problems that might create. In the meantime, I’m quite content with the actual, and on a chilly spring New England day like today, I would much rather be out enjoying the tangible sights, sounds, and especially smells of real life.

Counting Backwards: The Foggy History of the Ether Dome

Video by Grace Raver, Judith Lavelle and Fink Densford

Article by Judith Lavelle
BU News Service

On October 16, 1846, a Connecticut con man-turned-dentist gathered medical students, surgeons and a brave patient named Edward Gilbert Abbott into Mass General’s surgical amphitheater to demonstrate the effects of ether, an inhaled anesthetic. The successful surgery, in which Dr. John Collins Warren removed a tumor from Abbott’s neck, launched a medical revolution. Doctors could finally take their time during procedures without subjecting their patients to either agonizing pain or a horribly unsafe method of knocking them out.

The Ether Dome—as it has been renamed—sits above three floors of Mass General’s Bulfinch building. The stairwell pulls you past the psychiatric department, some administrative offices, charming photos of hospital staff from the forties and fifties and finally past a plaque that announces you’ve arrived at a historical landmark. Here, a story played out that still reaches into every modern operating room.

Today, each of the seats in the dome’s stadium seating is named for one of the influential people who were present during the demonstration or otherwise involved in ether’s origin story. William Morton, who introduced the compound to the doctors at Mass General, is “seated” in the front row beside Warren and Dr. Horace Wells, a pioneer in the use of nitrous oxide in dentistry and Morton’s former teacher. Though side-by-side in spirit, Morton and Wells had a troubled relationship following the monumental event.

“The drama is in the fascinating story of human kind and our frailties as well as our glorious moments,” says Robert Krim, an innovation historian at Framingham State University, “so it’s a very powerful story. It’s a complicated story.”

Morton trained as a dentist under Wells after years of evading the law on charges of fraud and theft. After his teacher’s experiments using nitrous oxide during tooth extractions proved useful, Morton applied the idea to surgery using sulfuric ether—but attributed none of his inspiration to Wells. Without his first teacher’s preliminary research in inhaled anesthetics, Morton—who had no formal scientific training—may not have changed medical history. And of all fields in medicine, surgery had a particularly brutal history.

Before the introduction of ether, patients would endure the surgeon’s instruments with alcohol or intentional head trauma or opium to numb the sensation—whether that be a scalpel piercing through skin or a saw gnawing through bone. Surgeons would work as quickly as they could, but in half of their cases, the traumatic experience would end with the patient’s dying from shock, a dangerous plunge in blood pressure. As a dentist, Wells too lamentably inflicted his fair share of pain but found some success in avoiding patient discomfort with laughing gas. When he finally had the opportunity to share his findings publicly, he failed to administer an adequate dose to the patient, and he was dismissed as a fraud when the tooth extraction seemed as painful as any other.

Morton’s attempt went much smoother. You need to inhale quite a bit of nitrous oxide to disregard pain, but a single administration of ether induces a deep anesthesia. On the day of the famous surgery, onlookers were stunned to watch Abbott sleep through every slice of Warren’s knife. The world rejoiced at the news that the young dentist had found an answer to pain, but a jilted Wells fell into a despair that would eventually lead him to take his own life.

In the modern operating room, surgeons no longer use ether to put their patients under anesthesia. Drug manufacturers now provide a variety of inhaled and intravenous anesthetics which can safely put patients to sleep. But as the original “answer to pain,” the discovery of ether remains a monumental step in the history of modern medicine.

Climbing Closer to Space Vacations

Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

By Grace Raver
BU News Service

You’ve probably heard of commercial space travel spurred on in part by the Ansari X Prize, a 10 million dollar prize to encourage development in space travel for the “average person,” aka millionaires. There have been some great successes in the field, and the company Virgin Galactic intends to begin its first commercial flights to space as early as 2015.

However, flying into space isn’t the only form of space tourism. The latest talk about town involves building a space elevator. As strange as it sounds, the idea of having an elevator take you out to space and back isn’t exactly new. A group called the International Space Elevator Consortium that promotes development of space elevator technology has been around since 2008. This story is finally gaining ground now because a Japanese construction firm named Obayashi Corp. recently announced its plans to build the elevator.



The elevator would dramatically cut down on the cost of space travel, but it would take longer to get out there than traditional means. Regardless, this is a serious project in the growing field of space tourism.

The entire project hinges on the elevator cable, which needs to be insanely strong. The company had planned to make this cable out of carbon nanotubes: at almost a hundred times stronger than steel, they were the strongest fibers on earth. But the game has changed now that Researches at Penn State University have developed diamond nanothreads, which are even stronger, stiffer, and lighter than carbon nanotubes.

Diamonds are one of the hardest materials on Earth because of their structure. Each carbon atom in a diamond is bonded to four other carbon atoms to form a tetrahedron, or pyramid structure. Penn State researchers have discovered that applying a specialized compression process to benzene forces the molecules to line up in a dense crystalline chain of carbon tetrahedrons. Although amazingly strong, the thread is very small, 20,000 times smaller than the average human hair.

This discovery in itself is extraordinary because this structure has never been seen before. But of course its practical implications have immediately been linked to the space elevator. Hypothetically, diamond nanothreads could be capable of withstanding the intense amount of stress inherent in a structure stretching 60,000 miles high.

Now the research will be shifting to make the thread larger and more practical, which poses the question: what else could we do with these guys? Super long lasting floss? A new kind of bullet-proof vest? These threads might even be a must have in future jewelry or fashion. Being a romantic at heart, my favorite thought is that we might finally have a way to lasso the moon. Not that I think we should, but it’s fun to think that now someone could.


If you’d like to learn more about the logistics of a space elevator just click here.