David Holling­worth

DAVID HOLLING­WORTH nerds out about how the holo­grams in Star Trek aren’t ac­tu­ally holo­grams

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One of the most en­dur­ing it­er­a­tions of vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy is Star Trek’s Holodeck. It’s also amaz­ingly iconic, built around a de­cep­tively sim­ple set as well – a big, empty room, with a yel­low grid-pat­tern on black walls. It’s so iconic that the HTC Vive uses a sim­i­lar graphic to warn users when they are ap­proach­ing the edge of their real space.

But, de­spite the name, the fic­tional tech­nol­ogy be­hind the holodeck is any­thing but holo­graphic. Warn­ing – we’re about to dive deep into some se­ri­ous Tre­knob­a­b­ble!

All mod­ern dis­play tech­nolo­gies are based on the ma­nip­u­la­tion of light – our mon­i­tors, VR head­sets, AR de­vices like Mi­crosoft’s Hololens – but the holodeck uses ac­tual, real mat­ter to cre­ate its ‘pro­jec­tions’. By ty­ing into its star­ship’s trans­porter (the tech­nol­ogy that beams peo­ple and ob­jects from ship to sur­face in the show) and repli­ca­tor (the tech­nol­ogy that cre­ates Pi­card’s cups of “Tea, Earl Grey, hot”) sys­tems, the holodeck ef­fec­tively turns raw mat­ter into what­ever the pro­gram needs at hand.

This is, un­der­stand­ably, an in­cred­i­bly en­ergy in­ten­sive ap­pli­ca­tion, so to cut down on power drain, only the ma­te­rial close to a user is sim­u­lated in such a way – any­thing far enough away to not need to be real is an ac­tual hologram.

At the end of a pro­gram, the mat­ter mak­ing up each ob­ject is re­turned to the ship’s mat­ter stores. Which, in­ci­den­tally, is where all the ship’s waste goes, too…

Aside from the cre­ation of tem­po­rary ob­jects, the holodeck also uses an ar­ray of other tricks to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of vast dis­tances and open worlds. When two or more peo­ple use a holodeck to­gether, it’s im­pos­si­ble for them to be more than a few me­ters apart. But to pro­duce the il­lu­sion of dis­tance, the holodeck can ma­nip­u­late pho­tons to form a ‘lens’, through which ob­jects ap­pear fur­ther away. And since all grav­ity on a star­ship is gen­er­ated ar­ti­fi­cially, the holodeck can ma­nip­u­late that, too, to cre­ate low and high grav­ity en­vi­ron­ments.

To make users think they are able to tra­verse those ar­ti­fi­cially large dis­tances, the holodeck can cre­ate force­fields with a tread­mill mo­tion, so that users feel like they’re mov­ing, but are in fact stand­ing still.

And, on top of all that, the power of a star­ship’s com­puter can sim­u­late all mat­ter of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gences with rel­a­tive ease, pop­u­lat­ing its pro­grams with peo­ple and crea­tures at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

Star Trek’s holodeck is pretty fan­tas­ti­cal, but like much of the tech­nol­ogy on the show, it’s also very in­spir­ing. The HTC Vive’s grid aside, com­pa­nies like Vir­tuix are bor­row­ing holodeck con­cepts in our own drive to make VR more real. The Omni is a 360 de­gree tread­mill that lets VR users ac­tu­ally move around in vir­tual worlds, while re­main­ing on the spot – just like the holodeck’s force­field. And then there’s Vir­tual Mo­tion Labs and its VMG 360 Plus gloves, which use hap­tic feed­back to let VR users feel vir­tual ob­jects.

It’s not quite turn­ing raw mat­ter into what­ever you want, but it’s aim­ing for the same ef­fect.

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