The Future is Here: The Holodeck Video Trainer

VIPE1A current obsession of military planners is keeping up with the latest in battlefield challenges while also dealing with troop reductions and tightened budgets. Video games are one solution, providing soldiers with  training that does not involve real munitions or loss of equipment. Unfortunately, most of these games do not provide a real-world immersive feel, coming as close to the real thing as possible while still being safe.

Hence why the the Army Contracting Command enlisted the help of Northrop Grumman this past January to integrate their Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) “Holodeck” into the US Army’s training program. Much like the CAVE2, a VR platform created by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois, this latest holodeck is a step towards fully-realized VR environments.

VIPE_HolodeckUsing commercial, off-the-shelf hardware combined with gaming technology, the VIPE Holodeck virtual training system provides users with a 360 degree, high-fidelity immersive environment with a variety of mission-centric applications. It can support live, virtual and constructive simulation and training exercises including team training, cultural and language training and support for ground, air and remote platform training.

Last year, the VIPE Holodeck took first place in the Federal Virtual Challenge – an annual competition led by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Simulation and Training Technology Center – for the system’s Kinect integration navigation sensor, which gives users the ability to crawl, walk, run, stop, jump, and move side to side in the virtual environment.

?????????????????????????????????According to Northrop, the VIPE Holodeck moves ahead of other virtual simulators thanks to its advanced situational training, where service members can walk through an area in the replicated virtual environment and prepare for what they may encounter in real life. This works not only for infantry and target practice, but for vehicle drivers and police officers looking to simulate various situations they are likely to encounter.

To enhance that training, operators can drop threats into the environment, including IEDs and enemy shooters, as well as signals that should tip them off to potential threats and see how they respond before they actually find themselves in that situation. This sort of versatile, multi-situational complexity is precisely what the Army is looking for.

VIPE3Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, deputy commanding general at the Army Combined Arms Center, said during the AUSA Aviation symposium earlier this month:

For us to be able to execute realistic training — good training — we have to be able to bring that operational environment [into the virtual world]. We want to get away from having multiple environments, virtual gaming and instruction, and go to one synthetic environment, get to a lower overhead and integrate the full operations process … according to the common operating picture.

But looking ahead, the applications for this type of technology are virtually (no pun!) limitless, never mind the fact that we are realizing something directly out of Star Trek. Northrop says it’s also exploring options for VIPE as a stepping stone to live-training within the medical field, as well as law enforcement and first responders for situations such as live-shooter or hostage scenarios.

ESO2Immersive virtual reality also figures quite prominently in NASA’s and other space agencies plans for future exploration. Given that manned missions are expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous, mission planners are investigating Telexploration as a possible alternative. Here, orbiters and rovers would transmit visual information in real-time, while VR decks would be used to give the appearance of being on location.

As Ryan Frost, Northrop’s program manager for the VIPE Holodeck, put it:

The great thing about virtual reality and gaming technology [is that] it’s moving so rapidly that really it has endless possibilities that we can do. If you can think it, we can create it, eventually.

And be sure to check out this video from Northrop Grumman showing the VIPE Holodeck in action:


Sources:
wired.com, northropgrumman.com

The Future is Here: The VR Cave!

Cave2It’s called the CAVE2, a next-generation virtual reality platform that is currently the most advanced visualization environment on Earth. Whereas other VR platforms are either in 2D or limited in terms of interactive capability, the CAVE2 is about the closest thing there is to a real-life holodeck. This is accomplished through a series of panoramic, floor-to-ceiling LCD displays and an optical tracking interface that is capable of rendering remarkably realistic 3D environments.

Developed by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, CAVE2 is a direct follow up to the VR platform the university created back in 1992. Like the original, the name stands for “Cave Automatic Virtual Environment”; but whereas its predecessor was set in a cube-shaped room, the new environment is set within a cylindrical, 320 degree immersive space. In addition, the screens, sounds, and resolution have all been vastly upgraded.

ModelFor example, the 7.5 by 2.5 meter space (24 feet x 8 feet) is covered floor-to-ceiling with 72 3D LCD screens, each of which outputs images at 37-megapixels (that’s 7,360 x 4,912 pixels, twice that of 2D). This allows for a pixel density that is on par with the human eye’s own angular resolution at 20/20 vision. Headgear is needed to get the full 3D effect, and the entire apparatus is controlled by a hand-held wand.

Yes, in addition to the holodeck, some other science fiction parallels are coming to mind right now. For example, there’s the gloved-controlled holographic interface from Minority Report, the high-tech nursery in Ray Bradbury’s short story The Veldt, and the parlor walls he envisioned in Fahrenheit 451. And apparently, this is no accident, since director Jason Leigh, the head of the project, is a major sci-fi geek!

mars_lifeBut of course, all this technology was designed with some real-life, practical applications in mind. These range from the exploration of outer space to the exploration of inner space, particularly the human body. As Ali Alaraj, a noted neuroscientist who used the CAVE2 put it:

“You can walk between the blood vessels. You can look at the arteries from below. You can look at the arteries from the side. …That was science fiction for me. It’s fantastic to come to work. Every day is like getting to live a science fiction dream. To do science in this kind of environment is absolutely amazing.”

All of this bodes well for NASA’s plans for space exploration that would involve space probes, holographics, and avatars. It would also be incredibly awesome as far as individual hospitals were concerned. Henceforth, they could perform diagnostic surgery using nanoprobes which could detail a patients body, inch for inch, from the inside out.

And of course, the EVL has provided a cool video of the CAVE2 platform in action. Check them out:

Source: IO9, evl.uic.edu

The Future is… Foggy!

utility_fogIt’s called a Utility Fog, swarms of networked microscopic robots that can assume the shape and texture of virtually anything. Originally proposed by J. Storrs Hall, a speculative science writer back in 1993, the concept has gone on to inspired futurists and science fiction writers for years. These include Warren Ellis’s foglets in Transmetropolitan and Neal Stephenson’s personal nanodefense systems in The Diamond Age, among others.

As an extension of the nanotechnological principle – where microscopic machines are able to self-replicate and construct just about anything – the Utility Fog idea goes a step further by proposing that we have a series of robots linked, arm and arm, to form a solid mass that can assume the shape of anything we need. Another term that is often used is “Smart Matter”, because it entails the creation of materials that are capable of responding to input, storing info, and thereby predicting what a users desires.

And since they are composed by tiny robots that could be capable of computing and networking with larger machines, they could even form interfaces that allow us to store information, send emails, or take pictures. Each “foglet” would function as its own discreet computer network, in this model, making sure that separate clouds are discernible and perform different tasks. The possibilities are truly limitless, and though it may be a few decades away at this point (by liberal estimates), we can only imagine how it will alter our daily lives.

During a recent interview with IO9, Hall reminisced about how he first came up with the idea:

“I came up with this vision of form fitting foam — one that could take on the shape of anything inside it and on the fly, which got me to wondering if we could ever possibly build something like that.”

The answer, according to Hall, came to him by considering the nascent field of molecular nanotechnology. By designing and creating objects at the molecular scale, Hall envisioned a fog that could quickly morph along with the movements of anything around it — including the passengers of cars. However, the greatest potential, to Hall lies in the creation of virtual environments. In truth, there could come a day when utility fogs will blend seamlessly with the real and virtual worlds, creating a kind of hybrid reality in between.

“You could actually push this technology to the point of creating a virtual world around you. You’d essentially get Star Trek’s holodeck — one that could actually cut you and make you bleed. You could put yourself in a virtual environment where you’re interacting with something that leads to a real environment, and it’s this interface between what’s real and virtual that will prove to be the most important thing about it.”

However, the most radical possibility could be in the field of clinical immortality. Amongst science fiction writers such as William Gibson, the idea that human beings could upload their minds into constructs and interfaces has been toyed with for some time. However, why upload your mind into a box or some kind of portable hard drive when you could render it seamlessly into the form of a fog?

“You could very realistically imagine uploading into it, and then you’d be this sort of formless data amoeba controlling this formless physical amoeba and take any size or form you wanted.”

Of course, there are limitation to the whole concept, not the least of which is the fact that the constituent components of the technology are still any decades away. For starters, there’s the ability to construct robots on the scale required, then the need to fashion computers that are small enough to fit. Then there’s the software required to program such machines. Hall figures that it could take a team of experts as much as a half decade to come up with the first set of algorithms required for the most basic functions.

“To navigate that hairy interface between the continuous and the discreet — that’s more difficult, the foglets will have to link up hands, let go, walk, crawl, and so forth — it’ll be like a three dimensional square dance.”

But above all, the main issue is one of cost:

“The system will have to be capable of keeping track of any changes to the environment and to keep track of you — and this will require incredibly sophisticated simulation, sensing, and interfacing software and that’s going to be tremendously expensive.”

Not surprising really. At this juncture in time, the greatest leaps in technology that will forever alter the future and make it impossible to predict – to a point anyway – are still highly speculative. But then again, major breakthroughs are being made all the time, and are occurring at a greater and greater pace. Who’s to say when the future will arrive. It never seems to show up on schedule!

Technology in the Star Trek Universe (updated!)

I’ve wanted to do a post like this for awhile, ever since my conceptual post on Galactic Empires in fact. After doing my research on what distinguished one from the other, I noticed just how central technology, or the perception thereof, is to it all.

And let’s face it, Star Trek has had a lot to say about technology over the years, not all of it consistent! So with a series of examples, I thought I’d examine just what Gene Roddenberry and his successors have had to say.

Cloaking Device:
First developed by the Romulan Empire, the concept for an invisibility field that encompasses an entire ship has been picked up by just about every advanced race in the galaxy. Considered impractical by many because of the intense power drain, other races have found ways to adapt it to give their ships a decided edge in combat.

One such race are the Klingons whose vessels all come equipped with a cloak. The Romulans maintain use of this technology on their military vessels, particularly their warbirds, and even the Federation has been known to dabble in it from time to time. Another discernible weakness is the presence of tachyons and anti-protons that cloaked vessels are known to produce.

Holodecks:
The holodeck is an advanced holoprojector device that was designed by Starfleet for use aboard starships, stations, and institutions. It serves the purpose of entertaining, training and training purposes. Using focused photons to simulate matter, the holodeck is able to create physically real virtual environments out of pure energy.

Because of their potential for danger, all holodecks come equipped with built-in safeguards. Matter created aboard the holodeck ceases to exist as soon as it passes beyond its generators, and the technology has been adapted to creating AI’s such as the ship’s emergency doctor program.

Hypospray:
This non-invasive piece of medical technology is the mainstay of Starfleet medical. Using a compressed air transport mechanism, this device is able to transfer the injectant painlessly from the device into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery.

In the original series, hyposprays resembled hypodermic needles, but by the time of the 24th century (the TNG series) they had become much more sophisticated, resembling the unit pictured at top left.

Phasers:
Short for phased-energy laser, phasers are the most common energy weapon in Starfleet and the known universe. Beginning in the 23rd century, the technology was adapted for use as hand-held weapons, military rifles, and as the primary weapons banks on ships.

The 24th century saw further developments in the development of this weapon, which included mutli-segment phaser arrays,  and phaser cannons. The former made their first appearance in TNG on the USS Enterprise D and other updated ships while the latter appeared for the first time on USS Defiant.

Replicators:
Using the same technology as the holodeck, a replicator is a matter-energy device that is capable of dematerializing quantities of small matter and reconstituting it as something else. This can take the form of food, commercial products, or machine parts. In short, anything can come out of a replicator so long as it has the atomic matrix down, and isn’t illegal!

Prior to TNG, Starfleet ships used food synthesizers, but by the 24th century, the technology had been perfected and made standard on all starships, stations, outposts and settlements. Because of their sheer usefulness and versatility, every advanced race has adapted the technology for their own use.

Shields:
Also known as Deflector Shields or Screens, these devices are the mainstay of all advanced races in the Star Trek universe. Operating by creating a layer, or layers, of energetic distortion containing a high concentration of gravitons, they are able to provide protection against weapons fire and natural hazards.

Typically, shields are emitted from either a central emitter dish or a series that are dispersed over the hull. They usually come in six sections, covering the fore, aft, port, starboard, dorsal and ventral areas of the ship. In time, shields can be dissipated by either continuous or repeated energy discharges, leaving the ship vulnerable.

Transporters:
Utilizing subspace technology and the same matter-to-energy concept as a holodeck, the transport is the principle means of transportation to and from ships in the Star Trek universe. Often referred to as “beaming”, transporters are able to dematerialize, transmit and reassemble an object from one pad to another.

Making its debut in the original series, the technology has been updated in the TNG universe and its various spinoffs to allow for greater accuracy and safety through the addition of added redundancies. This increased accuracy allows for point-to-point transport, usually within smaller areas like the ship itself.

Tricorders:
A handheld sensing device, the tricorder was invented by Starfleet specifically for use by Starfleet personnel. However, since their inception in the 22nd century, they’ve gone through repeated upgrades, adaptations and have been adopted by just about every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant.

As it stands, there are six varieties of tricorder in use within Starfleet alone. These include the psychotricorder which measures a patients brainwaves, a medical tricorder which diagnoses ailments and injury, and four models (VI,VII, X and XV) all of which are in service in one branch of Starfleet or another.

Warp Drive:
In the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is both the primary means of transport and the pinnacle of a race’s technology. In fact, Starfleet only makes contact with a new alien race once they’ve developed this technology, as it’s felt that it is only at this point in a species’ development that they will be advanced enough to experience first contact.

First developed by the human race in the late 21st century, warp technology was what precipitated First Contact with the Vulcans. Utilizing a matter/antimatter process and a dilithium chamber, a warp drive generates a “warp field” to envelope a starship. This has the effect of distorting the local spacetime continuum and moving the starship at velocities that exceeded the speed of light.

Every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant has this technology, though some are able to achieve greater velocities (known as warp factors) than others. In the course of the old series and new, new and more advanced forms of FTL are being researched which may replace standard warp. These include transwarp, quantum slipstream, and a host of others.

Conclusions:
Technology as Utopian:
For the most, part Star Trek seems to be making the point that technology is a good thing. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or the many spinoffs to follow, it seemed that humanity owed much of its current condition to technological progress. Though they never explained how, at many points in the franchise it is said that Earth is now a paradise, bereft of crime, bigotry, hunger, and inequality. Just about all known diseases have been cured, and even money has become obsolete.

Yes, it seems that in the future, the focus of the economy has shifted to one of “self-improvement”… Might seem a bit hokey on the surface, but as I said in the Galactic Empires post, it’s really not that farfetched. Although its still pure fiction, the advent of something like warp drive, which would make space travel quick and affordable, commerce and transport between colony worlds would be open. This would mean abundant resources that went far beyond Earth and the Solar System, and we already know just how rich our system is in resources (see Asteroid Mining).

But more importantly is the development of replicator technology, which comes in the form of personal and industrial sized units. The former are used to produce everything from food and clothing to consumer products while the latter can create just about anything in bulk quantity. If this were possible, then all scarcity and deprivation would cease to exist. What’s more, the entire basis of an unequal distribution of wealth would disappear. Frankly, it puts me in mind of what Orwell said in 1984:

From the moment that the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.

By the “machine”, Orwell was of course referring to industrial technology and the economy it spawned. However, his overall point was clear. Modern technology, dedicated to the write purpose, had the ability to significantly raise the fortunes of all people. And let’s not forget how in the Star Trek universe, hyposprays and various medical devices can solve just about all that ails you! Break a bone, you get the bone knitter! Tear your ACL, you get the… ligament bonder. I don’t know, all I do know is that pain is virtually obsolete in this universe and its because of progress.

So really, Roddenberry wasn’t far off when he envisioned a “perfect society” in the future. It was just in how he failed to explain how this could done that things seemed a little weak. But of course, there was a flip side to the whole thing.

Technology as Dystopian:
But of course, there were plenty of examples of technology gone wrong. The examples are a little too many to name, so I’ll keep it to just a few. The first comes from the first season when the Enterprise D comes to a planet of Aldea. There, a group of advanced humanoid aliens live in relative peace and prosperity, except that they are sterile and therefore dying off. Hence why they start kidnapping the Enterprise’s children!

Eventually, the Enterprise crew determines that the source of their problem is the great machine that runs their planet, otherwise known as “Custodian”. Because they’ve forgotten how to use the machine, the Aldeans have been unaware of the fact that it’s long since broken down and has been letting harmful radiation in. They assist them in fixing it, and the lesson about letting technology run your life has landed!

The second example comes from the regrettable movie Insurrection, where the Enterprise E comes to an idyllic planet inhabited by the Bak’u. Here, people live in virtually perfect harmony with the planet by denying themselves certain technology, opting instead for the simple life. Their philosophy is simple: “when you create a machine to do the job of  man, you take something away from the man”.

All of this seems inconsistent with the usual message of Star Trek, and even the movie itself. Far from being purely primitive, the Bak’u employ all kinds of labor saving technology, which includes irrigation and dams. So really, are they really so opposed to technology or just specific technologies? Nevertheless, the metaphor is clear. Combined with the fact that this place has youth-preserving powers, the metaphor of this place is pretty obvious. It is the fountain of youth, garden of Eden, and the evil Son’a who are advanced and creepy want to destroy it. Not their best movie!

But the last and best example comes in the form of The Borg. A race of cybernetic beings who have merged the organic and synthetic, run by a hive mind that quashes all individuality, and threatening to assimilate all in their path, the metaphor is so thick you need a knife to cut through it. They are the ruthless march of progress personified!

And just look at them and their ships, are they not the perfect representation of cold, unfeeling technology? Sure they are! And the way people change once they’ve been assimilated, becoming soulless automatons and losing all color and individuality. Tell me that’s not a perfect visual representation of the death of the human spirit under the weight of urbanization and anonymity.

Some might call this inconsistent, but it seemed more likely like Roddenberry and his writers were simply hedging their bets. On the one hand, he was showing how human potential could one day yield the perfect society, or at least one that was free of all the problems we know and lament today. On the other, they must have wanted to show the obvious downside and dangers at worshiping at the altar of progress. After all, if you put an ideal, any ideal, ahead of humanity and life, all you get is dystopia!

And as always, other races in the Star Trek universe serve as a mirror for the human condition, or rather different aspects of it. If the human race has got it right, then others must not have achieved that careful balance of humanity and progress just yet. Whereas some prefer to be Luddites and live in an agrarian Eden, others have become runaway cyborgs who assimilate all in their path. It’s all about balance people!

Well, that was kind of fun! And it combined two of my favorite things in the world. Sci-fi and literary criticism. Perhaps I should do more of these. As always, suggestion on which franchise should be covered would be great. I can think of a few off the top of my head – such as the Star Wars universe, Dune, Aliens, Terminator, and possibly Battletech – but I would like to hear from others too. There’s always those added few that would be perfect but I fail to think of. Thanks all!