Written in Ink

Everything you know about the future is wrong: Wearable Holodecks

I'm going to make a little bet.

I bet that our next big technology is wearable holodecks, and I bet that once we start down this path it's going to make a lot of sci-fi futures and even current paths of research largely irrelevant.

That's because the technology is already here.

A while back I wrote an article (my second ever!) about how I thought a couple of technologies (Optical VR and wearable haptics) weren't being extrapolated properly in combination. I think I made a few good points, but I also think I went and did the same thing that I was obliquely criticizing and failed to go far enough.


I'd like to circle back, but first I'd like to include something else. . . because I think Professor Kaku got delightfully close when he was asked this question a couple of years ago. . .

I love how he ties so much together in just a couple of minutes. Nice and simple.

What's even better is when the two approaches get the chance to make sweet, sweet love.

Mr. Kaku's starting point was more along the lines of web-enabled contact lenses, which are a bit of a ways in the future, but the pieces are generally in place and these are technologies we're good at miniaturizing. Google glasses are clearly heading in that general direction, and cell phones are really driving that miniaturization.


One thing we see a lot of that may not be necessary is requiring the devices be transparent. I think there's still a big benefit in going there, but we're talking about very reliable (and in glasses form, easily removed) technologies and at least one company (eSight) has already created glasses that are basically screens in front of your eyes that pre-focus images for the visually impaired to improve quality of life and provide safety.

This can be taken a bit further, for example providing information from other cameras that tell you when things are around corners, enhance your vision in other ways, compensate for brightness, and so on. There was an amazing welders' helmet that I referenced in my last article that took this a bit further into awesometown.


That's already here now and the real magic is that they managed to mesh multiple inputs together to create a single live image that would be impossible for a human or even a single camera to see. And then they went and threw a dynamic HUD up there because they're just that badass.


And we're really just getting started.

Let's talk about haptics.

Mr. Kaku's approach was certainly viable, but I think maybe he was a bit colored by the previous part of his answer and missed something even better.


The idea of having a surface that's just a bunch of densely packed pins that have a wide range of motion, in combination with the image in your eyes/glasses, can certainly simulate a whole bunch of other surfaces . . . from a keyboard to a kitten, that would definitely be awesome.

But why require us to BE somewhere to have this? Why not wearable haptics? Gloves and such?


The general principle applies to something you could wear . . we can even supplement some of the mechanics with electrical impulses, but let's finish going down the low-tech mechanical path.

It's one thing to provide a mild stimulus, but what about some real FORCE? What if you could make it feel like you were lifting a bowling ball? Swinging a sword? What if you could make a keyboard pop up right in front of you, have it feel delightfully clicky, and then have it vanish the moment you don't need it?


On top of that, there's just no comparing our ability to position our fingers on a surface vs. in space. We're creatures designed to touch the world around it, to feel it, to respond to it, and to interact with it. By designing super-smooth surfaces that we have to stare at and imagining futures where the ultra-rich are lucky to play with holograms that you can't touch we're completely ignoring our are of expertise.

Haptics covers a lot of ground, so let's start with the fingers because that's where most of the action is. We've already established that we can supplement the sensation somewhat electronically (and it's surprisingly convincing) and as Mr. Kaku said . .there's always just lots and lots of tiny pins.


You'd want some way to provide resistance, with little motors or somesuch and we're already pretty comfy there (and with all the artificial muscle research I like to think we'll have more options soon)

We'd want to go a bit further than that, wouldn't we? If we have gloves or just little things that go over our fingertips and run down the back of our hands (like we see in one sci-fi movie in twelve) the illusion gets a lot harder to maintain the moment the wrists move in space (and we move our wrists a lot)


So taking it a step further, what about wearable exoskeletons. . but backwards?


Picture something a whole lot more comfy than that and that only provides a tiny bit of force . . . but instead of augmenting you it resists you. Imagine as you lift that virtual sword the suit provides the sensation of weight, and as you block it pushes back. The range of sensations would be tremendous, and the very process by which it supplements your experience it also is constantly charged up.

You could see things perfectly in front of your eyes or miles away (as long as there were cameras there to augment the image!), you could experience holding a first edition printing of a favorite classic with only the lack of scent spoiling the illusion. You could play an MMO with your friends in which you could craft virtual worlds and go on adventures together that get closer to real than we normally envision for centuries. Instead of clubs redecorating everybody could just get a custom view of the world, complete with virtual costumes they crafted themselves in whatever party engine the club has in its' local mesh.


All without any new breakthroughs. . just a creative use of existing technology.

As an extra bonus, we've got a pretty clear evolutionary path.

  • Optical technology gets more unobtrusive and comfortable.
  • Interface technologies get more user friendly and sophisticated.
  • Haptic and exoskeleton technologies get more comfortable and more heavily miniaturized
  • Technologies that support the rest (sensors and local mesh like systems, offloaded processing, etc.) become increasingly advanced and well integrated.

After that, much else becomes a luxury and a waste. Televisions we replace every year. Monitors. Things. Toys. Why waste the time going to the store to buy some Nerf guns when you and your friends can just download a program and be fighting alongside Master Chief (or chef!) against evil alien unicorns?

And it gets even better!

This technology is the best thing for the environment in the history of ever.

The reason why? Economics.

If you've got a thousand dollars to spend . . . do you buy a big screen TV you don't need? Do you buy a big screen TV that you don't need? Replace your monitor? Buy a keyboard?


Do you buy a musical instrument when you can download them all?

People still love their things, of COURSE we're going to have our toys and treasures. . . we love our things, but our decisions are going to be forever weighted in a completely different direction. We'll have a small number of precious treasures rather than a massive amount of low-quality crap.


That means a whole bunch of this goes away.

THIS is the ultimate green technology. . . because it motivates people not to waste resources using economics and our own nature. Sure, not everybody would want one, but a lot of people would, right?


Sure, not everybody would dive into such a thing, we're too diverse for that. . . but a lot of us will. . and the more people we add the less recycling we need to do, the less crap we need to manufacture, the less of the planet we have to ruin to get the things we want.

And this all happens not by making a bunch of painful sacrifices (and we humans DON'T make sacrifices even if there's a good reason for it as evinced by actual things that happen). . . instead it happens while having a lot of fun and getting to play with a massive pile of toys that we never, ever have to put away.


Now, this technology is pretty cool in the real world already, but how good would it be somewhere that was designed to set it loose with few constraints? Rather than a land full of trolls and spoilers?

That's what Awesome, Incorporated is for.


What kind of super powers could we all have? What could you invent?

Next up, we'll hit on some other (less intimidating) business opportunities for Awesome, Inc.

And in another we'll see the Wearable Holodeck AND Awesome, Inc in action in part three of 'Doctor Who and the Rightly Broken Rule' (next week)

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