When will I be able to play around on a holodeck or go into the Matrix?
October 27, 2010 6:33 PM   Subscribe

How is virtual reality technology coming along?

I've been interested in Futurology and the forecasts of people like Ray Kurzweil for a while now. But what probably fascinates me the most is the potential for realistic virtual reality, eventually even comparable to the holodeck of Star Trek, or the Matrix. I've seen articles about it here and there, but I'd love to find out the latest in-depth information about it.

As CGI on 2D screens has become almost indiscernible from what's real, the next logical step seems to be CGI in a fully-immersive 3D environment(just imagine the possibility of watching a movie or playing a video game and BEING THERE, rather than just seeing it on a screen). The current popularity of 3D movies and TVs is a small step in that direction, but still far off from true virtual reality.

So what's standing in the way of fully-immersive virtual reality? What are the biggest current bottlenecks or technological limitations? Is computer processing power not that far along yet? Are the virtual reality goggles/headsets not good enough, and are there viable alternatives? Is the biggest issue just cost? Just how extensively is virtual reality being researched?
posted by Ryogen to Technology (4 answers total)
Actually, computing power and displays are probably the least of the issues. You can get high-def head-mounted displays now, and clusters of blade servers, if you have the cash.

No, the issue is one of movement and tactile response. While there are schemes that let you walk in place while the scenery goes by, they're not very good and they're quite disorienting (I'm told). And there are relatively few methods of handling reasonable interaction between your hands and gameworld objects.

And, of course, we don't have any commoditized method of doing arbitrary tactile feedback. You could use an electrical stimulation unit, as suggested here for correcting balance problems. I saw an article a few months back about a glove that fairly-well mimicked lots of different textures.

But, basically, the issue is not the 3D, or the graphics, or the computation to generate them; and clearly we have sound. But, in order to feel like you're there, you need touch and you need force feedback and you need kinesthetic stimulation.

People are working on all of that, though, I promise. It's just that, without forcefields or some similarly exotic technology, we haven't gotten very far yet.
posted by Netzapper at 7:37 PM on October 27, 2010

From what I've seen, the more common setup these days seems to be using 3D projector(s) and spectacles, and some sort of bluetooth remote for control, rather than the old-style VR googles. I've even seen it set up as an entire room with projectors onto each wall for a full surround experience, though that was 2D imagining.

You could look at something like the playstation move plus 3d games (and tv/projector) as the consumer level version of this form of the technology.

As netzapper says, the biggest limit thought is the tactile immersion/force feedback part of the equation.
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:11 PM on October 28, 2010

I think above we've got the CAVE type VR system state covered, but what about the Matrix part of the question. Jacking directly into the brain? still really far away.

hearing/balance: Cochlear implants are close, but users were hearing before losing hearing and getting the implant say it is still tinny and robotic sounding. Just heard of similar implant being used to correct vertigo.

vision: stimulation of the visual cortex: might be able to read a page, but very pixelated.

Taste/Smell: I don't think anyone is working on hijacking the olfactory system, but the tongue can be used as a vision replacement?

Touch/Motor control: Luke Arm from Dean Kamen, currently controlled by a foot joystick, with vibrating motors to give pressure feedback. plans for direct nerve interface, but still a long way from whole body sensation replacement.

We're just beginning to understand how to interface with the brain, and these technologies with have to be improved for many years on the severely disabled before anyone would think about the number of surgeries needed to make a really immersive video game environment.

What about manipulating the brain without surgery? Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation has shown we can turn off or on regions of the brain temporarily, but it's seems to be whole sections of the brain, not the kind of fine tuned neuron level work you'd need to build the matrix.


30-50 years until we see this tech, the standard futurist, "Gosh, I hope everyone who'd remember this is dead by the time someone needs to check on this prediction"
posted by jrishel at 10:54 AM on October 29, 2010

I've been a subject in a couple VR experiments! There are walking systems that track your steps, only massively exaggerating them in virtual space so you can use a small room. There are all sorts of different input devices -- a large 3D display combined with a head tracker is my favorite, since the head-mounted displays are heavy and feel unnatural. I've seen shared multi-user augmented reality systems too, which are a lot of fun. Overall, none of the systems is good enough to justify the extremely high cost.

I actually think the golden age of VR is here, no futuristic virtual displays required. The number of people who spend a significant fraction of their lives playing MMORPGs would astound even an 80s cyberpunk writer. As the next generation grows up with virtual worlds, they'll start to think of it as a literal extension of physical space. People are more likely to change than the basic technology.
posted by miyabo at 9:06 PM on October 29, 2010

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