The many reality technologies to pick from let us escape to a virtual or semi-virtual world, but with telehaptics we can get even more jacked in and get as close possible to that ultimate Star Trek geek-out: teleportation.
As if there weren’t enough realities to wrap our minds around, Intel recently added “merged reality” to a kaleidoscope of augmented reality and virtual reality innovations. Combined with telehaptics, they are starting to make William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” seem a tiny bit more like science than fiction.
In Neuromancer (1984), a cyberpunk classic, we were introduced to the concept of being “jacked in” to a global computer network – the original Matrix – such that we became completely immersed in the experience: seeing and connecting viscerally with other people and experience, unencumbered by physical limitations and boundaries.
Ah! 1984 was a good year: it also saw the debut of “The Terminator,” another cult classic, which in this case renewed fears of a robot/cybernetic apocalypse. Apocalypse aside, it also showed us what a really cool heads-up display could provide with augmented-reality technology.
Figure 1: After the laughter wore off, The Terminator’s augmented reality view of the world was to linger on in the imaginations of many up-and-coming innovators and designers that are seeing their visions come to life now.
Fast forward to the first season of Star Trek, The Next Generation, and this cybernetic thread takes a more malevolent twist with the introduction of the Borg, the ultimate form of organic and technological assimilation. Resistance is futile. And they may have been right.
Tim Cook would argue otherwise. While VR from the likes of Facebook (Oculus Rift), HTC (Vive) and Samsung (Gear VR), Apple CEO Tim Cook recently argued that complete immersion in a virtual reality may not be the optimum solution and that some hybrid version of real and virtual is the better approach.
Microsoft has already taken the augmented reality (AR) approach with its HoloLens, which overlays a real-world view with information, video or images superimposed so it’s presented as a holograph in the physical world. Microsoft calls this blending of real and virtual “mixed reality.”
With its merged reality and Project Alloy (an appropriate name), Intel comes at it from the opposite end: It takes a virtual world and uses its RealSense camera and processing technology to scan and insert local real-world objects. In this way, users are in a virtual world, but are still aware of their surroundings, with the added twist that they can actually pick something up and interact with it in the virtual world. In the demo at the recent Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, the VR wearer was able to take a dollar bill out of his pocket and use it to shave a virtual gold block.
So, now we have multiple realities to pick from: physical, virtual, augmented, mixed, blended, and merged. Will virtual worlds become more appealing than the real world? Many compare Microsoft’s HoloLens to the Star Trek holodeck, but if you take it further, what if ends up being as close as we can get to teleportation?
A safer way to augment the virtual reality experience may be to don a waterproof version of the Teslasuit. Developed by Tesla Studios, the suit uses electrical signals to stimulate the skin and muscles around the body in correlation with what’s being viewed through the VR goggles. In a free-floating state in a sensory deprivation chamber, that might be quite the experience.
Figure 2: The Teslasuit sends electrical impulses to the skin to generate sensations or stimulate muscles. It’s a good step in the direction of full-immersion VR, and may be a step closer to virtual teleportation. (Source: Tesla Studios)
Originally designed with gaming in mind, the company is also exploring uses in architecture and design, medicine, and psychology.
At this point you might have noticed that the combination of high-res VR + a Teslasuit in a sensory deprivation chamber is getting awfully close to being as “jacked in” as we can be right now, without actually making physical contact with the brain. It’ll be some time before we’ll be comfortable with that, but what can we do in the meantime?
Oh well. But now we can step it up a notch by getting semi-jacked in with a Teslasuit and a sensory deprivation tank to enhance the VR effect. Now we can go anywhere, and be anywhere (or anyone) at the flick of an eyeball, and feel nothing but the virtual experience. Voila! Teleportation! Tim Cook, you might be underestimating VR’s potential.
Of course, there are a few “technicalities.” Getting remote sensors to provide accurate feedback and then reconstituting that feedback accurately is a field unto itself, called telehaptics. Still, it’s exciting to even see just elements of this come together, especially if you’re chair or bed bound.
Figure 3: Intel demonstrated Project Alloy’s “merged reality” capabilities by take a real dollar bill, capturing it using the RealSense camera, and then using it to scrape a virtual gold block. (Image courtesy of Intel Corp.)
Part of Mouser's EMEA team in Europe, Mark joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark spent 8 years at Texas Instruments in Applications Support and Technical Sales roles and holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.
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