A long-lasting dream from the Star Trek world of science fiction, a real holodeck appears closer than ever thanks to new emerging technologies.
In 1973, Gene Dolgoff arrived at a Manhattan hotel with several holograms and a laser in tow. He had an appointment with Gene Roddenberry, fabled creator of Star Trek — the meeting wound up taking all afternoon.
As one of the earliest students of holography, Dolgoff was convinced that holograms were the wave of the future, and he wanted to convince Roddenberry of his views.
“You could create an environment where you could go in and be anywhere you want, but not have to teleport there,” he told Roddenberry who was inspired by the encounter. From this simple hotel meeting, one of the most forward-thinking devices in all of science fiction was born.
Of all the Star Trek’s big ideas — from teleportation to the warp drive — the holodeck has remained relevant for decades, inspiring software and pushing hardware. Originally appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it stands up as the holy grail of computer systems with a godlike ability to generate synthetic realities. It allowed the crew of the Enterprise to virtually visit anywhere, including Deadwood, South Dakota and classic noir ganglands, without leaving the ship.
But Dolgoff’s vision is much more than fiction. The holodeck lives on in the dreams of developers as a guiding light for immersive technologies like virtual, mixed and augmented reality. Pending wide release in March, Star Trek: Bridge Crew for VR platforms makes the holodeck is closer than ever. Players can sit in a virtual version of the Captain’s chair and issue commands.
“The 20th century has brought us increasingly immersive media representations,” said the interaction designer Janet Murray, and author of Hamlet on the Holodeck.
VR is the latest in a long line of media innovations that have made stories more realistic, beginning with film. As the legend goes, 1895’s L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat caused panic in theaters when audiences mistook a moving image for a real oncoming train.
Now, VR creators are looking for their Lumière brothers moment, when the artificial passes for the real thing. But whether it is even possible to build a device like the holodeck remains one of tech’s most enticing riddles.
“We’re far enough off from something like the holodeck that it’s hard to say if we’ll ever get to the point where people lose sight of what’s real,” said Kim Pallister, Director at Intel’s Virtual Reality Center of Excellence.
Pallister believes that, before it can reach holodeck levels, technology must first be capable of completely subsuming the senses. If the awareness of being in a virtual environment disappears, then the brain is more likely to accept the environment as reality.
Current immersive tech has made great strides towards simulating the sensations of sight and sound. But other senses that people rely on to find their way around the real world are still rather primitive, such as the sense of touch and the vestibular senses, or awareness of body position.
“The more senses that you can simulate convincingly and effectively, the more potential you have for a user to feel present in the environment,” said Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. This even includes taste and smell, for which few developers have found a good solution.
Despite obstacles, fully immersing the senses is an important puzzle to solve. Not only could a Holodeck-like system lead to a new era in virtual entertainment, it could also do some serious social good.
“There are many applications beyond gaming in which virtual reality could be potentially valuable for those who don’t have the physical prowess to participate in a given activity,” said Mark Barlet, Executive Director of the AbleGamer charity.
Right now, “merged reality,” an emerging technology that blends authored virtual worlds with real-life movement, seems like the next step towards full immersion. Intel’s Project Alloy, announced in August during the 2016 Intel Developer Forum, may be the next step toward realizing what Roddenberry had in mind.
With a wireless headset that merges the real with the virtual, users can move naturally through the physical world while exploring virtual settings, in much the same way that personnel in Star Trek used the holodeck for training and developing skills.
“The best experiences are those that take the most compelling parts of the digital and the most compelling parts of the physical and mix them together,” said Tawny Schlieski, Director of Desktop Research at Intel.
Intel’s RealSense technology integrated into Project Alloy will allow people digitize objects in the real-world and take them into the virtual environment. One early example of how this works is the Minecraft mod Block Maker, which allows players to transform knicknacks and paperweights into objects in the games. If the analogy is extended, eventually people could be taking real-world stuff into their private holosuite.
“Long term, what you really want is for the computing system to look out into the real world, digitize all that, and be able to freely manipulate objects in the world as flexibly as a digital object that is authored as an artist,” said Pallister.
Such an innovation could transform how people live. The potential for malleable virtual worlds could do wondrous things, like offering people with physical disabilities the chance to surpass physical limits.
“When you’re someone who grew up with a physical disability and watching shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, the idea of virtual reality has always been a distant beacon of hope,” said Steve Spohn, COO of AbleGamers.
Equipped with digital bodies, the disabled could go inside the holodeck with others and engage in activities like sports. But first, someone has to build the holodeck.
“If your body wasn’t able to cooperate the way you see everyone else using theirs, the idea of virtual reality as an escape is immensely valuable,” he said. But first, they have to build the holodeck.