Star Trek-like holodeck may be closer to reality than you think

[From The Financial Post, where the story includes additional images]

Star Trek's holodeck

[Image: Salia and Wesley Crusher view a holographic reproduction of an unnamed planetoid on the holodeck in 2365. Handout/Paramount Pictures]

Star Trek-like holodeck may be closer to reality than you think

Matt Hartley | Feb 20, 2013

TORONTO • On board Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, there was a room where Lt. Commander Data could experience the world of Sherlock Holmes, Lt. Worf enjoyed cowboy adventures with his son and Captain Jean-Luc Picard relaxed while roleplaying as private detective Dixon Hill.

The holodeck.

Perhaps no other piece of fictional technology from the Star Trek universe — with the exception of the iconic transporter that first “beamed up” characters from the original 1960s series starring William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk — has inspired the imagination of fans and the general public quite like the holodeck.

First introduced in the earliest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation 25 years ago, the holodeck was a virtual reality wonderland; a digital playground that created fantastic worlds out of thin air, allowing the crew of the Enterprise to experience fictional realms in a contained and (usually) safe environment.

Indeed, some of the research that would go into technologies used on a holodeck is being done at AMD’s research facilities in Markham, Ont., where the company’s graphics product delivery operations— including video and display technologies — are headquartered. The site is the former home of ATI Technologies, the Canadian graphics chip developer that AMD acquired in 2006 to boost its video hardware capabilities.

While the technology needed to create a virtual reality chamber once seemed light years away, many technology companies are already working on early prototype designs for holodeck-style chambers, and technologists now believe machines worthy of bearing the name “holodeck” could be as little as 10 to 15 years away from realization.

Earlier this week, computer scientists from micro processor manufacturer AMD were in San Francisco speaking at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco about the future of holodeck technology and sketching out a strategy that could one day produce a room capable of immersive virtual reality.

“It really is the thought process that we can move from what is today — let’s call it traditional computing, where we make processors faster and a little bit smaller and a little bit cheaper — to processing that can really integrate all of the powers of the technology into heterogenous computing, and with that, there are lots of technologies that come on board,” Lisa Su, senior vice-president and general manager for AMD’s global business units, said in an interview.

At the centre of AMD’s holodeck research is something called heterogenous system architecture, which involves a number of different computer processors working together.

In the case of the holodeck, that could mean various computing systems designed to control the video and audio inputs for a holodeck-like environment working with natural user interface technologies — such as speech recognition and motion trackers — that would enable a user to interact with a virtual environment.

“What we’re trying to do in a heterogenous system is bring the best computing technologies together and have them work seamlessly in the environment,” Ms. Su said.

Of course, AMD is not the only organization blazing a trail that could one day lead to the yellow and black checkered promised land of the TNG holodeck.

Microsoft Corp. is working on a suite of technologies to create a holodeck-like experience at its Edison lab in Redmond, Wash., while researchers at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and Viterbi School of Engineering are working on “Project Holodeck,” an effort to create a space as close to the holodeck as possible using consumer hardware and peripherals.

In AMD’s case, the company’s blueprint for a holodeck includes combining elements of computational photography, context computing, directional audio, tactile feedback, augmented reality and natural user interfaces to create its imagined worlds.

Such a system requires sophisticated video processing technology that can stitch together multiple video inputs to create an immersive environment, as well as eye-tracking technology that would allow the video to change depending on the user’s movements.

While 360-degree video might be the most obvious component in a holodeck-like structure, according to Ms. Su, technologies such as directional audio — think movie theatre surround sound on steroids — help to situate the user within an artificial world.

“If you think about our hearing, it actually tells us should we be scared, happy or looking over our shoulder,” Ms. Su said.

“Directional audio really allows you to be very specific with how audio comes into a 360-degree environment; you don’t just hear it behind you or in front of you, you really are able to mix and match it with your video so that it actually gives you a much richer experience.”

Some of the technologies that would enable users to navigate the a potential holodeck — including touch computing, speech recognition, and motion sensing capabilities — are already being used in consumer technologies today, such as smartphones and video game systems.

Of course, the holodecks popularized by the various Star Trek television series not only produced images and sounds to trick the user into thinking they were experiencing an alternate reality, but also produced physical objects and other people that users could touch and manipulate.

Ms. Su admits the tactile feedback sensors and accelerators necessary for those more complex functions of a holodeck are “further out.”

“If you think back even a few years ago, you wouldn’t have believed the iPad as being as easy as it is with touch capability,” she said. “Now it’s very prevalent. I think the same is true for tactile feedback.”

Joining Ms. Su on stage at the San Francisco event on Monday was LeVar Burton, best known for playing Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“The Holy Grail of tech from the original series would be of course the transporter technology, and try as we might we all acknowledge that’s a down-river goal,” Mr. Burton said in an interview.

“But what happened with Next Generation was they were able to come up with a technology that, again 25 years ago, seemed equally impossible to us. But there’s something magic and now chemical that happens between the idea and its resolution in space … I think what people are drawn to is that idea of being able to, if you can imagine it, you can experience it.”

While devoting research to the creation of something like the holodeck might seem frivolous to some, Mr. Burton believes that the purpose of these kind of endeavours is to make life on Earth better for everyone in the here and now. In addition to his continuing work with the children’s TV show and app Reading Rainbow, Mr. Burton is also involved with an effort called 100 Year Starship, which is devoted to gathering the necessary technologies to prepare humanity to visit another star in a galaxy far, far away.

“The real truth is, all of the things we have to figure out in terms of everything — I mean, we have to figure out everything and take it with us — because these people aren’t coming back,” he said.

“We have to invent ways or relating to each other, of educating each other, of furthering the population, which means medical science and birth in long-range space. There are a kajillion problems, and that doesn’t even touch propulsion. So my point is, that this is valuable for us right here, right now.”

As for Mr. Burton, he had no idea holodeck-like technology might one day be possible in his lifetime when he first donned Lt. Commander LaForge’s gold visor roughly 25 years ago.

“We used to talk about it that we would never see it in our lifetime,” Mr. Burton said. “That’s the speed at which things are changing.”


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