Tele-Immersion, Virtual Reality, and the Coming of the Holodeck

One of the fascinating peeks at future technology on the TV show Star Trek was the holodeck. Characters on the show would use the holodeck to relax by having simulated adventures in virtual environments. If one wanted to pretend to be-say-a gun slinger in the Old West, all it would take would be to select the appropriate preprogrammed scenario, put on a costume, and spend an hour in Dodge City. One could also revisit some favorite place without leaving the ship, say a caf�© in Paris or some spectacular view on some other planet

In more serious circumstances, the Star Trek characters used the holodeck to simulate dangerous situations, say a malfunction of the warp core, and arrive at solutions without actually having to experience the real thing. In one episode, the Enterprise crew used the holodeck to solve a murder case by simulating the events leading up to it.

Just as the communicator from Star Trek eventually became the cell phone, something like the holodeck is being developed by scientists and engineers in the current century. The new technology, called tele-immersion, will be used to facilitate business meetings between people separated by thousands of miles of distance. But, as the saying goes, the applications will be endless.

How Tele-Immersion Works

Videoconferencing is already commonly used in business. It uses internet telephone technology and video cameras to bring together people at widely dispersed places on video monitors to have meetings. But the ability of people to interact in these situations is limited.

Tele-immersion takes the concept of videoconferencing a step further. In the future, if you wanted to talk to-say-George in the New York office, you would command your computer to place the call. Suddenly one wall of your office would vanish and you would see George in his office in 3D as if the wall had suddenly become a window. George would be able to see you and your office in much the same way.

The way this would happen is that a computer with thousands of times the capacity of present day desktops would generate the holographic image. Using cameras spaced around the office, it would recognize the presence and movements of people and objects inside the office. It would track their movements. Then it would project the image on a stereo-immersive surface, that is to say your office wall.

Something like this was achieved in May of 2000 under the auspices of the National Tele-Immersive Initiative. A person in a room at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill was able to see and communicate with colleagues in New York and Philadelphia. Several months later, in October 2000, virtual objects were projected that could be manipulated with light pens. This technique, when refined, will be useful in facilitating the exchange of information.

Enabling Technologies

The May, 2000 and October 2000 experiments had some limitations. The images were transmitted at a speed of three frames per second, causing them to be somewhat herky-jerky. Participants were required to wear 3D goggles in order to be able to view the three dimensional images being projected. Several technologies are being developed to overcome these limitations.

The Internet2, envisioned as replacing the current Internet, will have a higher bandwidth and speeds of up to a thousand times faster, thus facilitating the transfer of data necessary to make tele-immersion work. Display technologies are being developed which will allow clearer view of scenes being transmitted. Haptic sensors, which create the sensation of pressure, are being developed that will allow people to touch and manipulate virtual objects as if they were real. Finally, desktop super computers will be necessary to perform the trillions of calculations per second to create the holographic environment.

Advantages of Tele-Immersion

When tele-immersion technology becomes available, the very way we do business and indeed communicate will change. No longer will people have to travel long distances at great expense in order to conduct business meetings. All that would be necessary would be to use a tele-immersion system to set up a virtual shared conference room with participants separated by thousands of miles of physical space, but being able to interact as if they were in the same room.

If and when tele-immersion technology becomes cheap enough for personal use, the way we interact with the world will change as well. Instead of getting into a car and driving hundreds of miles or flying in a plane for thousands of miles, one can instantly “visit” with friends and relatives, seeing them and interacting with them as if they were right in front of you. If you’re working late and will not be home for dinner, you can still be “home for dinner” through tele-immersion, having dinner with your spouse and children in a virtual dining room.

Beyond Tele-Immersion

Beyond the technology of tele-immersion would be the development of something like a true holodeck, which would allow a person to enter virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from the real world, only better and more interesting. Display technologies would have to advance by a quantum leap even over what is necessary for tele-immersion. Haptic sensors would have to become full spectrum tactile sensors, simulating temperature and texture as well as pressure.

The development of such technology will affect the way we live, work, and play in ways that can barely be imagined. Fantasy role playing, for instance, will take on a reality inconceivable to people who now sit around tables and roll dice to find out what happens to their characters. One will really be in a fantasy world, fighting monsters, uncovering treasures, and interacting with elves, wizards, and warriors.

One can “visit” far away places without actually leaving home. Imagine riding a gondola down the Grand Canal in Venice or riding a camel around the Pyramids or exploring Westminster Abbey without actually being obliged to go to Italy, Egypt, or England.

Are you a sports fan? This kind of virtual reality will allow you to actually play baseball or football with the all time greats. Imagine pitching against Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle or dribbling down the court with Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain.

This kind of virtual reality technology would be just the thing for training people to handle dangerous situations. Soldiers would fight in virtual battlefields and would become skilled veterans even before they experienced the real thing. Law enforcement officers will train in scenarios similar to what they might experience on the street. Surgeons would be able to practice procedures on virtual patients, honing their skills before they ever operated on a real person.

Is There a Danger?

Of course the ready availability of this kind of virtual reality technology might have less than desirable effects. Why actually go out into the real world, when the virtual worlds that are available are much more inviting? Humankind might become a race of virtual reality hermits, rarely venturing out of their virtual worlds.

The joys of virtual reality might prove fleeting, though, because they do come without danger and risk. What is the point of climbing a virtual mountain or hiking through a virtual forest without the sense of risk that that the real thing offers? Visiting a virtual Florence or Cancun might be pleasant, but it would not be the real place. Perhaps this kind of virtual play will just become a new option among many for people in their quest to fill leisure time. And that would be all for the good.�¯�¿�½

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