New ‘Holodeck’-like 3D environment will benefit science and entertainment

Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced us to the many technological marvels of a fictional 24th century, but a group of University of Illinois scientists has pulled one of those marvels — the Holodeck — one step closer to reality.

If you're not familiar with it, the Holodeck was a fantastical, fully-interactive, 3-dimensional artificial reality. Through the use of 3D holographic projections and force-fields, the computer could simulate any environment the characters wanted in the space of a small room, including solid-feeling objects and people to interact with, so that any scenario could be played out — from taking part in a Sherlock Holmes novel, to going on a simulated vacation on an alien world, or even creating a mock-up of the ship's engines to test ways of escaping a clever enemy trap.

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Well, it may lack the 'solid-holograms' of the Star Trek version, but the CAVE2 'hybrid reality environment', designed by Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL), is probably the closest thing we have today to a real-life Holodeck.

"It's fantastic to come to work. Every day is like getting to live a science fiction dream," said Jason Leigh, director of the EVL, in a video interview with The Telegraph.

This video shows off the structure and capabilities of CAVE2:

From the EVL website:

CAVE2 is approximately 24 feet in diameter and 8 feet tall, and consists of 72 near-seamless passive stereo off-axis-optimized 3D LCD panels, a 36-node high-performance computer cluster, a 20-speaker surround audio system, a 10-camera optical tracking system and a 100-Gigabit/second connection to the outside world. CAVE2 provides users with a 320-degree panoramic environment for displaying information at 37 Megapixels in 3D or 74 Megapixels in 2D with a horizontal visual acuity of 20/20 – almost 10 times the 3D resolution of the original CAVE.

What that means is, stepping into the CAVE2 environment puts you in a position to create, and smoothly interact with, any kind of virtual reality simulation you wish. By wearing a special set of glasses and using a special 'wand', both of which have small 'tracking dots' on them, you can pass on information to the computers about where you are looking and what you are interacting with, and the computers can respond by repainting the views on the screens to adapt to your perspective.

Although the new technology certainly has immediate applications in the entertainment industry, it will also prove to be invaluable to the sciences, allowing astronomers to explore space (using real astronomical data, I might add), doctors to view how a new medication interacts with proteins in the human body, and engineers and architects to view their creations full-scale, and perform tests while still in the planning stage, to minimize costs of manufacturing and construction. It could even be used to model weather systems, such as hurricanes, in high-resolution 3D, to identify areas that will receive the highest rainfall amounts, the strongest winds, or the greatest risk of flooding.

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Just to bring the concept full-circle, though, Leigh and his colleagues created a virtual reality simulation of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, specifically the one from the first three Star Trek movies (see The Telegraph article by clicking here). That's a little out of sync, since the Holodeck was a Star Trek: The Next Generation 'invention', but personally, seeing as the original movie-Enterprise is my favourite, I'll give them a pass on that.

(Video courtesy: Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois, Chicago)

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