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