Weird Science

Weird Science
How to Build a Holodeck

Tom Rhodes | 18 Mar 2008 10:02
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Admit it, you want a holodeck. I know I do. What could be better than the Star Trek ideal of interactive entertainment? Imagine being able to explore an immersive, limitless world.

But before I get ahead of myself, we need to define what a "holodeck" actually is. First seen in the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a holodeck is a large room with one entrance/exit. Its walls are covered in electronic "emitters" that project light into patterns - or holograms - and these patterns of light are made solid through the use of force fields that conform to their position and size. When people are inside, they are constantly walking on a force field that tracks their movements, making it appear that they are walking vast distances when they are actually walking in the same place. From this comes the definition: a holodeck is a room that creates objects, people and images on the fly and has no restriction on time and space. If you've never seen Star Trek (and how could you not?), this video provides a good example of the technology in action.

It's clear why this would be the ultimate destination for gaming. No longer would there be buttons or controllers or anything of the kind, just a room with infinite possibilities.

How would one go about building such a room? While we have access to holograms, they are often simplistic, without definition and realism. In addition, even if we could easily produce true-to-life holograms, we can't create force fields capable of forming light into a solid shape. No, we're going to have to get creative. We need to recreate the experience while staying grounded in reality. To do this, we'll have to cherry pick from currently existing and upcoming tech.


Let's break down what a holodeck is, then try to build it in order:

  1. Limitless movement in any direction
  2. Photo-realistic scenes and characters
  3. Complete auditory and olfactory immersion
  4. Automatic creation of objects and locations based on programmed simulations
  5. Interactions with all objects, including the ability to pick them up and move them

The closest we have to a totally immersive environment right now is this contraption, which I'll call the hamster ball. While it does cover movement, you're still limited by the devices attached to you. There are the VR goggles, to start, as well as a full bodysuit. The ball itself won't even give the feeling of scaling a hill or moving on rough terrain or in water, since it will only work as a semi-flat surface to move across. The advantage this system affords us, however, is the movement tracking system, which connects the virtual world to the physical. We can nab that, to start.

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