Fact from Science Fiction: Star Trek’s Holodeck Comes One Step Closer to Reality

Alison K. Lanier

Amid a flurry of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” references and nerd enthusiasm, The New York Times technology blog “Bits” reported what can feasibly be the next step in futuristic entertainment.

Nvate 360-degree video game world Advanced Micro Devices holodeck holodeck-type entertainment system

This is the holodeck from Star Trek.
Credit: Wikimedia, Redux

A set-up similar to that made familiar to audiences as the “holodeck” of the Star Ship Enterprise will, according to the blog, advance “a quest by computer companies, Hollywood and video game makers to move entertainment closer to reality.” Some scientists and researchers now say, according to the Times, that the goal of a holodeck-type entertainment system might be in the cards as soon as 2024.

The idea behind the technology is the dream of a hundred science fiction scenarios from “Tron” to “Star Wars”: an interactive digital environment that mimics the behavior of the real world. Hit a grand slam in Yankee Stadium or shoot arrows at Skyrim dragons. It’s a scene from a hundred movies and science fiction novels. Readers of the “Ender’s Game” novel will recognize this exact premise: young genii running through computer simulated giant houses and living through inescapably deadly scenarios.

The Times specifically cites Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, a computer chip company maker in Sunnyvale, Calif., who have built a “version of a holodeck.” Shaped like a dome and located within the company headquarters, this system uses wall-to-wall projects and surround sound, said the New York Post, and is “leading the charge” in bringing the holodeck dream to life.

From Science Fiction to Home Entertainment

Imagine bringing this technology into your living room, transforming ordinary spaces into “Mass Effect” battlefields and fantasy landscapes. Even the logical questions of how to run through those landscapes without hitting those same living room walls has been answered, according to the Post, with the United States Army Research Laboratory’s convenient “omnidirectional treadmill.”

This device, which comes in two varieties with a harness and without, allows the user to move in any direction, run across a field or wander a digitized building without encountering physical walls. According to the product description, the variety of omnidirectional treadmill used in the “holodeck” would, without a harness, draw the walker back toward the center of the room continually by, just as its name suggests, running in any necessary direction.

Facing Practicalities

The more pressing question for all this investment, though, is what usefulness the massive innovation can actually be put to. AMD as well as Microsoft have been pouring resources into this sort of holodeck project. But is there a market for this sort of enormous game-play system? How much would most people pay for a system like this just to be inside in the movie rather than on the sofa?

The system itself would present more than a few technical hurdles. Movies and games would become massively expensive to finance, to create an immersive, 360-degree world. Great detail and probably a great, numerous cast would be required to populate the 3-D view.

Additionally, gaming—warzones, crime scenes, apocalyptic other worlds—are, as Tech Radar pointed out, fairly dark places to find yourself, complete with noise, lights, and bullet-riddled corpses, and “If you think you are walking away from that experience without emotional scarring, you need to reconsider.” It’s worth mentioning that Tech Radar lists these considerations under the heading “PTSD.”

Secondly, on top of the massive financial and emotional cost of creating “reality” where once there were only games safely flat on-screen, there’s the cost in space. Where does one install a holodeck?

Leaving Questions Open

The holodeck may appear to be the next inevitable step in entertainment, in an industry straining toward duplicating reality, but its complications at this juncture are far more evident than its practicality. The nature of game design and movies would have to be adjusted and magnified in order to accommodate the new level of detail and immersion inherent in a holodeck medium. How does one act to an audience that occupies, for all practical purposes, the same physical space as the performers and can move around the set freely? And how convincing should the holodeck world be? How desirable is it—and how desensitizing, after untold war movies and video games—to find yourself in middle of desert warfare?

Perhaps in this case there’s something to be said for keeping our distance. Of course, keeping in mind Harry Warner’s famous comment in 1927, “Who wants to hear the actors talk?” Current critics of the newly conceived and still very rough holodeck may simply not be thinking “big” enough in terms of the potential of a new system to transform how media is produced and how audiences in 10, 20, or 50 years will interact with game and movie spaces.

However, amid all the Star Trek references made in connection with the holodeck, maybe it wouldn’t be beside the point to remember how many Star Trek episodes revolve around dividing fact from holodeck fiction. Blending reality and entertainment, war in video games, digital landscapes from real ones, is no doubt a powerful current trend, and one that the holodeck would suit perfectly.

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