How Do You Build a Holodeck?

by Elizabeth Howell on March 4, 2013

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Star Trek first officer William Riker steps into a simulated jungle on the USS Enterprise-D's holodeck. Credit: Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios, via Memory alpha

Star Trek first officer William Riker steps into a simulated jungle on the USS Enterprise-D’s holodeck. Credit: Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios, via Memory alpha

What would it be like to step in an ordinary room and feel a gentle, computer-generated jungle breeze, with trees swaying nearby that you could touch?

AMD, a micro processor manufacturer, is trying to figure that out. The company has been doing a conference circuit in recent weeks promoting its research in heterogeneous system architecture, which is essentially a method to bind parallel computing processes together for greater efficiency.

The “holy grail” of these efforts, according to AMD’s Phil Rogers, would be building something like the holodeck — the computer deck on Star Trek (notably in The Next Generation) where characters would play immersive games. They could dial up a mystery novel, for example, then find themselves in a seedy bar with virtual-yet-real-looking holograms in 1940s-style clothing.

Rogers, a corporate fellow at AMD, has spent years working in 3-D technologies. It’s only recently that the company felt comfortable enough to speculate about the holodeck, he says. Other entities are also working on holodeck-like technologies, such as Microsoft and Stony Brook University, so perhaps that helped.

AMD believes it could be only 10 to 15 years before a holodeck becomes real. What would it take to get there?

A better-than-Imax video experience. We hope you’ve had the experience of sitting back in a domed Imax theatre and watching the shuttle launch in Hubble 3-D. Yet despite the awesome wrap-around view, it doesn’t feel like reality. A holodeck would need 360-degree fidelity. It would need to understand that objects get closer when you step towards them, and further when you step away. Perspective must tilt as you move your head.  “You inevitably have to combine multiple video feeds to do that and stitch them together seamlessly,” Rogers said.

The highest-fidelity audio ever. You know those people who swear that records produce better music than MP3s? “People are very much more fussy about video than audio,” Rogers points out. To make the holodeck feel real, the audio not only has to be immersive, but also directional and able to change as the person moves. The latest in surround-sound technologies doesn’t even close to that, he said.

The sensation of touch. Sure, Captain Jean-Luc Picard can slug a virtual villain in the head, but it wouldn’t have that same oomph unless Picard could feel his hand making contact with the other guy. “We still need to develop the tactile feedback, as somebody in a holodeck interacts with an object and another person they need to touch, and they need to feel that they touched,” Rogers said. “The most likely way that we’d do that is with targeted air jets, and transducers that haven’t been developed yet.”

Efficient memory allocation. While the blue screen of death in three dimensions would be rather epic, that’s not what holodeck designers want. The best way to keep the holodeck humming will be sharing memory between the central processing unit and the graphics processing unit, Rogers said. We’ve already made strides in this direction. Still, millions of parallel processes will have to happen simultaneously, so there’s quite a ways to go.

Lots of processing power. It will take mega computer juice to sync up the images, audio and other features that make the holodeck real. Remember that line in the movie Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks refers to the impressive computer “in a single room”? It’s laughable now when glancing at an iPhone, but we face a similar challenge now with holodecks. “The problem is it would take racks and racks of mainframe-like computers,” points out Rogers. A holodeck can’t be commercially available until the components fit to a small rack and draw small amounts of power.

Find paying customers. Naturally, a holodeck won’t happen without a captive market. We’ve had at least one petition asking the White House to build the Enterprise, but looks like that won’t happen anytime soon. Luckily for humanity, AMD has a backup. The firm believes business conference calls could really use a boost from holodeck-like technologies. Instead of having a talking head and a standard PowerPoint presentation, imagine how much more interesting the report would look if said person could, say, grab a virtual model of the solar system and spin it before your eyes.

Target the open-source community. For those people who want to channel their inner Wesley Crusher, AMD plans to leave at least some of the holodeck architecture open to amateur programmers. It’s hard to predict what computer languages will take hold at that time, but it would be the equivalent of letting somebody with C++ or Java experience into the hardware. Perhaps it will let you set your phasers to … whatever you choose.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Misja van Laatum March 4, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Assuming this ‘holodeck’ was to be placed in a confined space, they’d also have to figure out how to simulate walking/running movement. Something along the lines of a giant hamster ball perhaps? It would allow for infinite walking in any direction – without your body actually going anywhere.

meekGee March 4, 2013 at 3:11 PM

… except you can’t simulate doors, stairs, cliffs, etc.

You can’t reverse engineer sci-fi since it was never forward-engineered to begin with.

spew March 4, 2013 at 11:30 PM

But you can aspire to reach those technologies. If we thought H.G. Wells’ idea was impossible, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

meekGee March 4, 2013 at 11:49 PM

So to your method, we have various technologies today because we were inspired by Sci Fi?

So, for example, engineers would not have thought up the mobile phone if they hadn’t been inspired by the Star Trek communicator? Or would not have thought up lasers had they not seen inspired by Star Wars?

Sci Fi contains interesting investigations of the effects of technology trends on human society, In the process, it sometimes conjures fictional technologies that are either projections of existing technologies (with practical barriers removed) or just pure fantasy. Rarely does Sci Fi actually lead the way in technical development…

Zoutsteen from Holland March 5, 2013 at 1:28 AM

Afaik, the oldest fantasy was for humans to fly. It indeed did not assist in the development of flying in any which way. Angels with wings actualy did the opposite for being totally the wrong design to fly.
And that is also where scientific advances fixes things by changing the proper perspective from naive fantasy to accepted technology.
But every advance always started with a dream, even if only shared by a few instead to the general public. Most often because dreams don’t need to last generations before becoming reality.

spew March 5, 2013 at 2:59 AM

Sorry, I don’t own a patent on that method you’re claiming is mine.

It does not hurt to aspire to reach those technologies regardless of how ridiculous they are. There’s a saying that life imitates art. Ever wonder why people spend time analyzing the feasibility of something happening in the movies? Why does the CDC comment on zombies? Why did NASA comment on the end of the world 2012? Why does a NASA scientist Marc Rayman think it’s cool to work on ion propulsion to its reality as in Deep Space 1? (hint on the last one, star trek) Even if nothing comes from sci-fi, people are still looking.

meekGee March 5, 2013 at 3:29 AM

Life imitating art does not mean what you think it does…

Case in point – are you really saying that ion thrusters were inspired by Star Trek’s Ion Drive? Because they use the word “Ion”?

lcrowell March 5, 2013 at 12:41 PM

The connection between science fiction and real science is complicated. The science fiction idea of the warp drive has been some fuel for thought in theoretical physics. I doubt that a faster than light warp drive will ever become a practical realty, in fact I think it will be forbidden on fundamental grounds, but it is an idea that has given some cause for thought. Teleportation of quantum states has some similar aspects to the transporters in Star Trek, though there are departures. In addition quantum teleportation was not motivated by these science fiction ideas, but by pure physics research on the nonlocality of entangled states.

Some technologies have been developed that mirror science fiction, such as the remote diagnostic and medical technologies featured in Star Trek with McCoy monitoring or surgically treating patients in a non-invasive manner.

I actually think the guy who was the most prophetic was George Orwell. His main character Winston Smith worked on a machine called a “write-speak” which in its description is fairly close to a word processor. He got it a bit off with the internet, for his Ministry of Truth communicated by pneumatic tubes. It is also interesting that his dystopian world had people watch the “screens” for a program called “10 minute hate.” In it people would go into frenzies of anger at a propaganda spiel. We have have something similar, a cable news media outlet called Faux News manages to do something similar, and with the screens in people’s own home.

The prognostication of future science by science fiction might be compared to Plato’s cave, where one sees the shadows of things but not the things themselves.

LC

spew March 5, 2013 at 10:15 PM

Good point. I thought I read that the mathematics of the Alcubierre drive indicates that one does not reach the speed of light bending space. But, we’re looking into it.

There’s a symbiosis in the relationship between sci-fi and science. One feeds the other with some real scientific established fact, and the other speculates at the possibilities using those ideas.

dmajaess March 5, 2013 at 12:38 AM

Hi spew, well said, humanity should aspire to advance and innovate. I will always remember Steve Jobs stating ‘Stay Hungary, be Foolish’ at the commencement address at Stanford … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc

Dan.

Ray Fowler March 4, 2013 at 3:13 PM

What a load of garbage. Shouldn’t articles like this be in the Weekly World News?

dmajaess March 5, 2013 at 12:31 AM

Hi Ray, I disagree. What seems like science fiction or out of reach in the present, can sometimes become the reality of the future. You may be interested in the following: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/02/pictures/110208-jules-verne-google-doodle-183rd-birthday-anniversary/

Dan.

JT H March 4, 2013 at 4:16 PM

why don’t we… figure out how to go into deep space first?

lcrowell March 4, 2013 at 4:51 PM

The Star Trek holodeck had a feature common to Dr. Who’s TARDIS, which if you walked into you found yourself in a large space. I think that would be the most difficult to simulate. Of course the subject might rather than walking around in their physical presence be hooked into a cyber-cerebral link that generates things directly in the brain.

LC

meekGee March 4, 2013 at 5:30 PM

A cyber-cerebral link, or as we often call it: Reality ;)

Dima R March 4, 2013 at 5:44 PM

Maybe AMD should concentrate on better CPUs for now. Personal mini universes, of various sizes, and programmable realities, that could be placed in one’s pocket, would be way cooler product.

Ciru March 4, 2013 at 5:46 PM

They’ll have to make sure that it malfunctions every few weeks so that you can’t get out and are in danger of being killed.

Dima R March 4, 2013 at 5:56 PM
Olaf2 March 4, 2013 at 6:34 PM

DS 9 had a holo suit. That would be more realistic for a holo deck experience. All you need is a rotating treadmill they can walk in and some air cannons to blow/smack air into them. They won’t notice the treadmill because they have these cool 3D glasses on their noses.

Torbjörn Larsson March 4, 2013 at 7:50 PM

How Do You Build a Holodeck?

I don’t know, but it seems we now know how to build Heisenberg compensators for teleportation:

Their key result, like that of the team that pioneered direct measurement, is that it is possible to measure key related variables, known as “conjugate” variables, of a quantum particle or state directly.”

“Putting all of this together gives a full, direct characterization of the polarization states of the light.”

(“Heisenberg compensators remove uncertainty from the subatomic measurements, making transporter travel feasible.”)

BTW, I seem to remember that prototype “holodeck” 360-degree fidelity rooms exist, at least in swedish universities. You walk on screened images et cetera.

I don’t know how they handle perspective though.

GregtheThird March 5, 2013 at 12:28 AM

** “Heisenberg compensators remove uncertainty from the subatomic measurements, making transporter travel feasible.”
By that they mean position and velocity. I find that one particularly hillarious.

I would be with Dr. McCoy and not use the transporter if it worked the way it is described in Trek fantasy tech lore. It would kill me in a rather horrible fashion and generate a computer copy of me that would assume my old life, assuming it could still function. The concept is an incredibly materialistic way to view the universe.

dmajaess March 5, 2013 at 12:41 AM

Hey TL, I’m unsure if you’ve read Lawrence Krauss’ ‘The Physics of Star Trek’, but if not, I think you would enjoy it. It was a delightful read.

Dan.

lcrowell March 5, 2013 at 12:12 PM

Heisenberg compensators!? The idea has elements of local hidden variable theory, which is forbidden by the Bell theorem. It does turn out though these are not needed in order to teleport quantum states. Given an EPR pair of states held by Alice and Bob (two hypothetical observers) Bob may teleport another quantum state with this pair so that Alice’s part of the EPR pair is replaced with this teleported state.

LC

GregtheThird March 5, 2013 at 12:18 AM

I thought that the future holodeck as depicted in STNG was silly as well. It would be hard enough to prevent one person from walking into a wall, yet in most instances they had a bunch of different people going into the same program. How long do you think it would take if 6 people took off in different directions before a number of them would smack into a wall? If you were in one of these hypothetical things, you are always going to have the sense that you are in a confined space, and the programming has to reflect that by limiting the direction that you can move.The hampster in the wheel idea might be workable for one individual, in order to prevent the illusion of unlimited movement in a given direction, but it won’t work for more than one person as the engineering becomes unworkable.

Mihai Cirneala March 5, 2013 at 12:51 PM

Well, it may be a solution for the “smacking into walls” problem: some rotating spheres controlled by the holodeck computer, each sphere occupied by one person. This sphere which can rotate helps to simulate walking and to create input for other senses. And each sphere is part of an interactive projection managed by the holy holodeck computer.

John Stock March 5, 2013 at 7:55 PM

Holodecks will never happen. Direct neural input would be easier to achieve and better.

spew March 5, 2013 at 10:01 PM

The guy was inspired by star trek to become a scientist and he is a elated to be working on the project. It isn’t as one dimensional as you’re seeing it, but sci-fi had an effect on this individual.

Why does SETI exist? Why did NASA have a comment on the end of the world and 2012? Why does the CDC comment on zombies? Surely you don’t expect me to think that there’s a possibility of a zombie apocalypse?

Basically, science feeds the science fiction, and the opposite happens too. It might not be as direct as you put it, like there are flying cars in a book so someone will build it. Science fiction inspire some people to pursue avenues in science because of the possibilities. Why do we try to build robots that emulate humans? Why build a lifelike person at all? There are more efficient shapes and sizes for different functions? And in life imitating art: there were cars built with the contours inspired by art deco. Although, I wonder if cubism will ever be the rage in a modern auto vehicle.

If people didn’t look to sci-fi for any form of aspiration as you imply, why do scientists spend the time to comment on ridiculous movies? Why are there mathematicians commenting on the tv show Numbers and the feasibility of their approach to solving problems? Why do climate scientists comment on the “Day After Tomorrow” when it was very bad?

There’s not quite the disconnect as you’re implying.

spew March 5, 2013 at 10:08 PM

Here’s something from the CDC about the whole sci-fi aspire bit:

“Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform. We continue to reach and engage a wide variety of audiences on all hazards preparedness via Zombie Preparedness; and as our own director, Dr. Ali Khan, notes, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.” So please log on, get a kit, make a plan, and be prepared!” http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm

Using science fiction is a good way to engage people. If sci-fi was so irrelevant, why would the cdc waste their time with this approach? As I said, life imitates art. It’s not as one-dimensional as you put it.

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