The holodeck: Holographic TV

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll talk about the holographic TV [hTV] a technology which is just around the corner.

A true hTV differs from a 3D TV by making the objects appear in the room instead of merely creating an illusion that they are 3D.  When viewing a 3D TV everybody watches the same picture no matter where you are in relation to the screen. A hTV sends out the light in such a way that an object will actually appear to be in the room. your relation to the TV will therefore actually determine what you view. You can compare the difference between viewing a scene in a show box and having a model of the same scene. In the show box you see a scene from a fixed perspective while you can walk around a model.

A hTV has the benefit of not being harmful to the eyes and eye development in children and will not cause headaches and exhaustion associated with traditional 3D TV’s. This is because a hTV actually projects the object into the room so your eyes can focus on an “object” instead of the screen.

Restrictions with native hTV content have to do with the available processing power and bandwidth. You can imagine that in order to display an object in 3D from any given angle requires a massive amount of data. This will mean that in the first generations of the hTV it will track your eye movements and only display the viewing angle you see. This means that the number of viewers is automatically limited to the number of people the hTV can track and display an object for. As the cost of bandwidth and processing power decreases more angles will be added.

Early adopters of the hTV will be of course the military gaining an advantage when they are able to plan missions on a live 3D map. I also see potential for industrial designers and architects allowing clients to view their work without having to produce a physical model. This means they can adapt their work to the clients wish live with the click of a button. Of course the advertisement industry will use the technology to attract attention to their products. Later on theme parks and cinema will install hTV technology to entertain their costumers.

The first hTV native consumer applications will probably come from the gaming industry. Which just eliminates the step which makes their 3D games able to display on a 2D screen. Sports will benefit from hTV technology allowing you to view the pitch from any angle you desire and allowing you to walk around so you can see what the players see. The other early adopters for consumers will be the porn industry which, unlike Hollywood, does not care about artistic value of their production as long as it gets the job done.

Hollywood will need more time however so they can figure out how to get the story across when people can view it from unintended angles. Maybe they will keep to showing their films more like the traditional 3D technology. Where there is just one viewpoint for all viewers, independent of the location of the viewer like a show box having layers of 2D images projected a little bit apart from each other creating the illusion of 3D.

the technology to shoot a film in native hTV is already available to consumers. A hacked xbox kinect camera has been shown to film a room 180 degrees in 3D. two or three of these camera’s could capture (nearly) an entire room allowing you to view an action in that room from any angle.

The holodeck: Current status.

A simulator for entertainment. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Stephanie Souderlund

A simulator for entertainment. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Stephanie Souderlund

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck but first I’ll examine how far we are today.

Lets start with the basics here: What is a holodeck? The concept of the holodeck originates from Star Trek The Next Generation. It is a large room in which reality can be simulated. It is a room which uses a combination of holographic images, teleportation technology, replication technology, tractor beams and force fields to create a lifelike representation of the world (whichever world that might be). The holodeck as described in Star Trek is fiction of course and quite possibly will never be a reality as described. There are however several technologies that will or could basically do the same thing.

First off the personal computer and gaming systems. You might think it is a big step from these to a holodeck but actually a lot of things needed for a holodeck are actually already incorporated in these systems. They render their virtual worlds in 3D, contain information about what are solid objects, how you move over certain terrain, great gaming features and more. Of course a solid object is just solid so a wall and a person will both feel like solid brick but still many information in games is usable for a holodeck. of course the biggest issue is that you cannot enter the world yourself. You will always need to rely on a screen and some kind of input device. (although the Wii, Xbox kinect and Playstation Eye take a few first steps towards eliminating the clumsy (unnatural) controller altogether. On the plus side these systems are cheap and have come a long way in just a few decades.

A step up is a system called the CAVE. It has three or more walls (sometimes including floor and ceiling) on which 3D images are projected. With 3D glasses (similar to the ones for your 3D tv) you get a holographic simulation. By walking around an object you can view it from all sides like an actual holographic image. With new technologies (similar to the aforementioned Xbox Kninect etc.) you are even able to interact with these objects to some degree. The lack of a physical form is a big disadvantage however. To be able to truly interact with an object you need to be able to handle it as well. That is why most video’s of people interacting with virtual objects seems so clumsy, you just cannot get an idea of weight, form and feel of an object. Another big disadvantage of this system is the space you need (it is a room within a room so you need an awful amount of space) and the money a system like this costs.
The last problem is that it is unfit for young children and some people experience headaches when using the system. This is due to the actual technology. The information our eyes gets says an object is somewhere in the room, the actual object is on a screen however and so the eyes shift focus between the screen and where the object is expected to be. This rapid focussing between the two causes the headaches but is also why children shouldn’t use it. Their eyes are still developing and the 3D technology can hurt the development of the eyes.

The best holodeck equivalent  we currently have are the big simulators used to train pilots, ship captains, Formula One drivers or are used in an amusement park as entertainment. They act and feel like the actual thing and by the use of hydraulic pistons simulate movement of the ship, car or plane. The latest version, based in the Netherlands, is even able to simulate gravity (or the lack thereof). The biggest disadvantages of these machines is that they are very large, require a crew to operate (both for maintenance and running the training), cost a lot of money and require you to purchase a new machine every time you want to use it for a different plane/car/boat.