The Spirit of Trek – Holodecks

By Mike Medeiros

Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages has started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. This week we’re going to be taking a look at some of the work being done to bring another one of Gene Roddenberry’s technological visions of the future into reality: Holodecks.

In the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode, The Practical Joker, the concept of a Holodeck was first seen on television in the form of the Enterprise’s Rec Room, where McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu strolled through a woodland scene among other varying and exotic locales. Roddenberry’s desire of an outdoor recreational simulator was conceived much earlier (in 1968 according to Memory-Alpha), but with the budget restrictions and technology limitations at the time, Star Trek: The Original Series was never able to depict it on television. With the animated series, those limitations were lifted and we were able to witness the first iteration of the technology.  However, it wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation that we were able to see how the technology was integrated into the lives of people living in the 24th century.

The technology has become synonymous with Star Trek and has been seen in one form or another in every series since then. In Enterprise, the crew encountered aliens with holographic technology, and even a group of ship wrecked holograms. Voyager’s crew frequented their Holodeck on their long voyage home with a couple members of the crew dabbling as novice holo-novelists. On Deep Space Nine, we saw Bashir and O’Brien’s holosuite adventures and more notably the 1950s era night club and casino with its holographic crooner Vic Fontaine. It was in TNG where we truly explored what a Holodeck would be like for people. The series presented entertainment options in the form of holo-novels, training exercises, sporting events, and so much more. TNG also explored some of the darker sides of the technology, including the idea of creating an artificial intelligence trapped within its confines, and the very real possibility of holo-addiction.

With Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Holodeck firmly established in Star Trek canon, are there individuals or companies working to make his vision a reality? After a few quick searches, I discovered various projects that are striving to make the technology a reality, including some advancements in virtual reality.

The first of these is Project Holodeck. They seek to reinvent video games through the development of a 360-degree, 3D virtual reality play-space that will allow two players in their living room or garage to don a pair of goggles and a helmet and step into the game and become their avatars. They are required to move around the space, avoid obstacles, and interact with objects using a pair of handheld controllers. Virtual Reality is a long way from Holodeck technology, but it does demonstrate the first steps in its development.

Several years ago, Alan Chalmers, Christopher Moir, and David Howard took virtual reality goggles to the next level by blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s virtual. Their cocoon helmet provides the wearer with stimuli to all five senses. The technology allows the wearer to experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the original location. They want to use the technology to bring the world to people, by giving them experiences that they may not be able to undertake themselves. The technology is being positioned as a way to allow people to take virtual vacations, a common feature of Holodecks as they were seen in every series of Star Trek.

Even the US Army has seen the benefit of Holodeck technology for training exercises with their Close Combat Tactical Trainer. It’s a virtual reality simulator that is one part Call of Duty and one part Holodeck that places soldiers in a room with VR goggles, and motion capture sensors. It runs on the CryEngine, a video game engine that offers near flawless graphics capable of accurately displaying footprints and disturbed soil indicative of hidden IEDs.

Although Virtual Reality tries to deliver the Holodeck experience, the extra equipment that the user must wear or hold detracts from the experience that Gene Roddenberry envisioned almost half a century ago. Microsoft is on the forefront of developing Holodeck technology with a couple of different projects. Most notably is the Kinect motion-sensing platform for Windows PCs and Xbox 360. With natural gestures and spoken commands, the user is able to interact with the system.

Microsoft Research’s latest project, the HoloDesk adds precision and marked improvements in the Kinect’s sensing technology. The desktop device allows the user to slip their hands into it and interact with virtual objects, such as spheres, cubes, and more. Users are able to see their interactions with the virtual objects through a specialized screen. The HoloDesk’s improvement in accuracy and precision has the potential to move the company forward towards the goal of developing a real Holodeck.

Microsoft has even gone as far as patenting the Holodeck. In their proposal, they want to evolve the Kinect technology to turn our living rooms into a rudimentary form of the Holodeck. They will use Kinect sensors to map your room and location, while a series of video projectors transform your living room into an immersive 3D world. They even envision the system being able to recognize, hide, and use your furniture to enhance your game play. The game will manipulate the virtual environment to take advantage of the objects in your environment, such as chairs.

This reminds me of a series of advertisements that I came across in my research for this article from Sony. These ads were to portray the immersiveness of renting or purchasing videos on their PlayStation Store, but I wonder if this couldn’t be similar to what Microsoft is envisioning for their Holodeck patent (sans the spandex clad extras). I’ve linked my favorite of the Sony advertisements below and included links to the other two.

With companies and projects developing various Virtual reality technologies, it’s only a matter of time before we start to see holodecks materializing in our neighborhoods or living rooms. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m reasonably sure we are already capable of generating the outdoor recreational simulation that Gene Roddenberry wanted for TOS, and later featured in the TAS episode, The Practical Joker.

Its individuals and companies like these that are keeping the Spirit of Trek alive by making Star Trek’s fanciful technologies a reality. It makes me wonder if anyone is actively working on force fields or matter-energy conversion processes. But, that will have to be a topic for another column.

The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and Prosper.


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