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Science does not follow a linear path. Yet, persistence counts in research, and that's the case with virtual worlds. In the 1990s, many people perceived virtual worlds as a fad. Researchers and developers had to wait until innovations in networking, computer graphics, and haptics made the basic elements of VR inexpensive and ubiquitous. The Nintendo Wii is a great example of how technology has progressed in 15 years, with 100 times the performance and 1/100 the cost of high-end workstations from the '90s. Suddenly, a new virtual world is appearing on the Internet each week. Just as suddenly, many researchers can afford to expose many people to the technology, test hypotheses, and explore new problems. Modern society's problems aren't linear either and can appear almost from nowhere. In the 1980s, HIV caused governments everywhere to respond with huge new research programs, which are having an impact. Today's challenge is almost as pernicious because identifying and treating it is difficult - and its cost to society can be just as devastating. That challenge is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the science of virtual worlds might well be a major factor in meeting it.
Date of Publication: Jan.-Feb. 2009