The Mastery of Life

In Gatesville, Texas, one can find a company that designs and fabricates simulations, called Medical Plastics Laboratory. Like the Larson Co., two states over, in Tucson, Arizona, its creations are noted for their remarkable attention to detail. Unlike Larson, which creates perfect imitations of natural environments mostly for zoos, theme parks, and aquariums, Medical Plastics Laboratory manufactures facsimiles of people, which are used for medical training.

The company's manikins simulate not only the appearance, but many of the functions of the human body. They produce realistic heart and breath sounds; they simulate choking for those who want to practice the Heimlich maneuver; they can be injected and catheterized, and they have mouths with flexible tongues. Reading through the company's catalogue, one finds oneself in another simulation bazaar, with promises that the products achieve the ultimate state of realism.

These manikins are one of many efforts that are now underway to create duplicates of human beings and other living creatures. Other examples include animatronics, that simulate the behavior as well as the appearance of people and animals; robots; retail manikins; wax statues; children's dolls; crash dummies; adult sex surrogate dolls; and computer-generated images of actors, referred to as synthespians. The end result of all this will likely be nearly perfect simulations of people, to go with the perfect simulations of natural and constructed environments that are being developed.

But, in addition, what we see in Medical Plastics Laboratory is another use we have for simulation. Here, it appears not as an opportunity to trick people or play out fantasies that we are mastering obstacles in the world, but as something practical we can use to actually master some of those obstacles. It fulfills that function by allowing students to practice on a model of the human body, before they try their hand at the real thing.

There are numerous other examples in which simulations make it possible to interact with a realistic model of something that would otherwise be inaccessible, in ways that aid us in practical and work-related tasks. Using this principle, firefighters create models of disasters, with real vehicles, people and props, once again, for practice. Similarly, the disabled are learning how to navigate wheelchairs in virtual realities, practicing with a model of the physical world, what they will eventually do in the actual physical world. And people are learning how to overcome phobias, by confronting simulated models of feared situations, such as flying in airplanes or speaking in public, in virtual realities.

Each of these is, in a limited way, an immersive or interactive story-based simulation -- a lifelike fiction with characters, settings and/or plots. People become part of these invented situations to learn how to do something practical or experience some kind of necessary emotional growth, all of which may be found in entertainment-based simulations, as well.

An example of another kind of practical simulation, used to test a product rather than train a person, can be seen at Chrysler, which has created another kind of simulation environment, in the form of automobile testing rooms that imitate various weather conditions. Automobiles are subjected to temperatures from -40 degrees to 125 degrees F; to rainstorms and blizzards; to sun-baked conditions, and to radio frequencies. Wind tunnels that push air rapidly through a testing room, allow the company to simulate driving conditions of up to 90 miles an hour, with stationary, vehicles. These models of climactic environments and driving conditions allow the company to predict how its automobiles will behave, without having to travel to different climactic zones, to test them.

This simulation doesn't have much of a story line, of course. Instead, it is part of the larger story of humanity's genuine effort to master its surroundings and turn it into a more human world that is designed around our needs and desires.

The Age of Simulation