Saturday, August 26, 2006

Next Step: The Holodeck

The world is getting more complex all the time, and an ever-increasing list of technologies can fool us into thinking something is a tangible, physical object, that doesn't actually exist, or make us believe something occurred that never happened, or cause us to experience something that seems so real, but turns out to be total illusion. 3D holographic images like the ones in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, can make us think something is right in front of our faces that is nothing more than clever video projection. Other amusement park rides can have us screaming in terror as we fly down the mouth of a giant dinosaur, or find ourselves in the middle of a battle with a Death Star; and, of course, we all know from recent journalistic experience that photographs can be altered to convince us that something occurred which actually didn't. However, the thing that all these illusions have in common is that they are primarily visual in nature. Some amusement park rides combine visual illusion with motion to make us believe we are flying and swooping at great speeds over treacherous terrain, but our brains wouldn't really buy it, if our eyes weren't seeing it. Seeing is believing, as far as our bodies are concerned.

So, would you believe that it's possible for the genius computer nerds to come up with ways to make your body and brain feel sensations that have you completely convinced you are physically touching shapes and textures that are nothing but computer generated fakes?--not something you see that convinces you it's real, but something you feel with your skin, and would even if your eyes were closed--like making your hand experience the sensation that it is petting a porcupine, or stroking sandpaper, when really it's stroking a smooth surface? Okay, from what I read today, they are doing this kind of thing. Maybe not at such a level that you'd believe you were petting a porcupine, but enough to make you feel like you were touching something sharp or pointy, when it was really all in your mind.

I don't get this at all. I think it's totally cool, but I really don't understand how it works. What I've been reading about are new developments in haptics, which, according to Encarta online dictionary is: "the science of applying tactile sensation to computer applications in order to enable users to receive feedback in the form of felt sensations. Haptics technology is used to train hand-eye coordination in tasks such as keyhole surgery and spaceship maneuvers." MIT's Technology Review has an article by Duncan Graham-Rowe, in which he looks at advances in the field of making computer's fool your brain into believing that your hand is feeling something other than it is. Graham-Rowe looks at research where they're using mechanical devices to simulate different surfaces, not by changing the shape of the device, but by varying the force the device applies to the hand that's touching it:

To create this illusion of sharpness, Robles-De-La-Torre, working with Carlo Alberto Avizzano and colleagues at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy, used a haptic interface called GRAB, which consists of a thimble connected to the end of a motorized, extendable arm. A user is able to move the thimble freely when placing their forefinger in it. Then carefully controlled motors provide force feedback, so the thimble's movement is impeded in ways that create "virtual" surfaces.

By setting up the system so subjects can move only their finger along one axis, from left to right, the researchers were able make people feel like they were running a finger over a range of different sharp and pointed edges, just by applying lateral resistance to their movement. The sensation was so convincing that the subjects were even able to match the shapes of the edges to images of them, such as a saw tooth or a hump with a pointed peak.

I'm really not entirely comprehending this, but it sounds like we're one step closer to the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. If they can get our minds to believe illusions we feel as well as illusions we see, how far off can we be from the ability to completely immerse ourselves in totally illusory worlds? I'm not sure how I feel about all this. I mean, a vacation toy is one thing, but what are the more nefarious uses to which such technology could be put? Virtual torture chambers? Virtual coersion tool, say convincing a head of state that his family is being killed before his eyes, in order to make him agree to your terms? Of course, there are much more benificent uses of such technology. If the technology gets advanced enough, the physically impaired could know what it's like to experience things the rest of us take for granted. How about a walk on the beach for a paraplegic, or maybe skydiving? Of course, right now we're still looking at feeling sharp and pointy edges, not complete environmental transformation. I do wonder what's next, though. Don't you?

Hat tip: Futurismic