Friday, April 4, 2014

A Space Holodeck

Extended time spent in space can have any number of psychological affects on space crews. Being locked inside a metal can with absolutely nothing outside and no one to help if there is a problem will wear on anyone. Not to mention the endless boredom and routine. While a spaceship will need constant supervision there will never be enough to do on a 2-3 year mission to Mars and back. Crews will need some form of entertainment. But not just movies and books. The crews of long duration spaceflights need something to connect them with home. Something that will give them a reprieve from the isolation of space. Luckily, movie-makers and futurists have already created such a device. The Holodeck.

The "Holodeck" of science fiction is a virtual reality (VR) room that becomes completely interactive. The user becomes a part of a different world ,which they can see and interact with using all of their senses. In science fiction the holodeck experience is accomplished through "hard light." No such technology exists today. However limited virtual reality is starting to gain significant traction in the video game industry. Products like the Kinect and the Oculus Rift insert the player into the game they are playing.  The Oculus Rift creates the illusion of being in the game through a pair of video goggles that let the user see the environment of the game as if through the eyes of their character. They move their head to the left they see the left and vice-versa. Goggles like the Rift can also be interfaced with treadmills and devices, like the Kinect, that track the users body movements. This allows the user of these complete systems to interact with the game using their entire body, running, jumping, and shooting just as if they were actually doing it. But these systems currently only let the user interact with the game and not the game with the user. Players can't feel the recoil of a gun or smell the smoke, they can only move around in it. And yet that may be all that is needed for space.

While the VR systems of today are designed for gaming they could easily be turned into a means of remaining connected with Earth. Systems very similar to the one shown above could be installed on future spaceships. Then, when astronauts go for a jog, instead of simply looking at a wall while they run on the treadmill, they can put on the goggles and immediately be transported to the edge of the Grand Canyon. They would be able to see the sunrise and, for just a little while, feel as if they have the entire Earth underfoot instead of being thousands of miles away from it. This can have tremendously positive affects on the crew.

A company that would want to pursue this type of technology would need to develop two things. First they would need to create a complete VR system that tracks the user and lets them interact with their environment. This has already been accomplished, so most of the focus would be on the second part. Creating the virtual environments from video gathered on Earth.

The company would need to create a means to make a video, of say a jog along the Grand Canyon, interactive. The user of the video would need to be able to "stop and smell the roses"  without having to pause the video. This will require a means of layering panoramic video from multiple cameras and syncing it perfectly. This hasn't been accomplished in the VR industry yet. The standard graphics for VR today are mostly CGI because it is easier to create a VR environment within a fake world.  But they look clunky and plastic. While these would have their place in entertainment for future space travelers, they would not have remotely the same effect as a true interactive image of home.

However, it is possible that, in creating these interactive environments that can't be touched or smelled, the experience could create the reverse of hope. It could bring about desperation from seeing something so real and not being able to feel it. It could be the equivalent of seeing a mirage of water when you are thirsting in the desert. There are too few studies available today to know what kind of effects this technology would have. A company interested in space applications would need to explore the affects thoroughly once created.

The major benefit to a company that creates these future space "holodecks" is that they would be a company that is not limited to the space industry. Many people on Earth want to have the visual experience of a jog on a beach in Madrid or along the Grand Canyon, instead of watching the morning news on their treadmill. And there would be no psychological implications from this type of technology in this situation. It would become a perfect example of advancing terrestrial life while developing products for space.

The company to create a viable environment that really becomes believable, though untouchable, will be one of the leaders of the future VR market. But it may also be able to solve half of the psychological problems associated with the long term isolation associated with current interplanetary spaceflight.

No comments:

Post a Comment