The holodeck: Modular Robotics

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the modular robotics.

This is my favourite holodeck replacement because it resembles the original holodeck in Star Trek most closely. Imagine a large room, about 2 stories high. You enter on the first floor, the floor you now stand on is silvery grey, these are robots. Half the room is filled with millions of robots, even smaller then a grain of sand.

The holodeck of Star trek, uses many exotic technologies like forcefields, transporters and replicators to create a realistic fantasy world within a confined space. Though this is great it is also uncertain at best if all the required technologies will ever become a reality. It is way easier to use robotics to do pretty much the same thing, with a little help from holographic projectors maybe.

Modular robotics are like high tech LEGO bricks. Each module is a small computer that has sensors and can connect with other modules. when they interact they essentially become a supercomputer which is able to rearrange itself into complex structures. the modules themselves are responsible for forming into the right objects with the right characteristics (soft or hard, warm or cold, colour, large or small, square or round etc.) while a central computer is responsible for the overall scene that needs to be created (e.g. a house with a bench in front on which a woman sits who is scolding you for being late).

If you walk across a street the scene changes accordingly. What will happen is that on one side of the room object are rapidly constructed and on the other side they are broken down just as fast. The robots get from one side to the other in a way that is not unlike the ocean currents. on ground level the robots move in on direction and underground a torrent of robots moves in the opposite direction effectively keeping you in the middle of the room. far off objects are projected on the walls and/or created with holographic projectors.

Of course the first generations of these blocks aren’t all that great. The modular blocks are not intelligent and need to be assembled by hand to do anything but they will eventually become more powerful and will eventually gain more and more of the functions I described above. When they get a resolution of a centimetre square (about half an inch square) it could get some applications. For instance in the military, allowing for urban warfare training in a large area or an architect showing a house not even build yet. When they get down to one millimetre square (about 1/25 inch square) it will be good enough to have wide scale applications. From designing a production line and training workers to work with that production line to entertainment purposes. When it gets down to the size of sand I think you will have a nearly real virtual reality.

Upkeep is easy, just add a bucket of new modules to replace faulty ones every so often. The faulty ones are detected by the modules around it and kept apart until they can be discarded by the user. Further along the line the faulty ones will be filtered out and repaired or recycled in a special part of the ‘holodeck.’ Which will eliminate upkeep altogether. On the downside: so many robots and computers will require a lot of power. In order to meet the power demand we will need new sustainable sources of power like solar, wind, geothermal or fusion power. Another downside is that it requires a relatively large space.

The holodeck: Exoskeleton

An impression of a personal simulator based on the exoskeleton technology

An impression of a personal simulator based on the exoskeleton technology.

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the potential of the exoskeleton as a holodeck replacement.

The exoskeleton is essentially a robot which you strap to your body. It applications are vast, most noticeably helping you lift heavy loads with ease and people currently in a wheelchair will be able to walk again. It is even predicted that we will all be wearing exoskeletons within the next fifty years. Next to those great promises we can see entertainment applications as well.

If you program the exoskeleton to provide resistance, mount it on a base which can turn on two axis, an arm to simulate list, an awesome sound system and put on 3D/ holographic goggles et voilà you have a personal simulator which fits in a room (see my ‘awesome’ Photoshop impression). For the first time in gaming you will actually feel the weight of the sword in your hand as you slay your enemies, be in the cockpit of your F1 car or at the bridge of the USS Enterprise. The sensors in the exoskeleton would eliminate the need for any other input device. Just grab the sword and you are ready to slash your enemy or take a hold of the steering wheel of your favourite car etc. You can do anything you want as if it was real.

As the systems of the exoskeleton itself get smaller you could add more functionalities to increase the experience. You could for instance add a sense of hot and cold, a sense of touch or a sense of smell. The easiest to incorporate would be hot and cold so it is likely to be added first. Smell is a little harder, because it would require some plumbing to get the smell near your nose. Touch over a large portion of the body is hard to do. It would require a lot of sophisticated output devices, not in the last place because our sense of touch is pretty sophisticated.

This system though being an awesome gaming system would first see military and commercial applications. The military would use it for training soldiers and preparing missions. Commercially it could replace the simulators now used to train pilots and captains. The biggest advantage for this system is that you can change the layout of the flight deck/bridge by loading a different program instead of having to build a new simulator which costs millions. It’s small size is a big advantage as well. Although if you have a larger space you could opt to simulate G-forces making for a more realistic experience. This in turn giving the crew an even better chance of surviving in the event of an emergency.

The biggest problem at the moment is that an exoskeleton is very expensive (although you can hire one for $590 or €460 a month). The technology required is still pretty much in it’s infancy and they are not yet mass produced. Also I do not know of anyone developing a system like this for entertainment purposes at the moment. However, if we really will walk in exoskeletons all day is only a matter of time before somebody will.

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.