Dream come true

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 August, 2009, 12:00am

The human brain could be called the ultimate virtual-reality machine. After all, with a little imagination, your mind can transport you to a tropical beach or mountaintop. Alas, such a pleasantly distracted state is hard to sustain unless you enlist an engaging trigger such as a book, a movie or psychotropic drugs. Even then, daily concerns such as death, taxes and the risk of arrest may intrude on the dream. The offline world can seem like a glorified prison.

But there is hope of escape in the shape of the 'holodeck', an immersive facility for simulated reality.

The roots of the holodeck can be traced back to the 1951 publication of The Illustrated Man, a book of short stories by American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Since then, holodeck technology has blossomed into a fringe pop-culture icon, thanks to its appearance on the starships and starbases of the fictional Star Trek universe.

The holodeck device essentially consists of a room in which objects and people are simulated by an array of futuristic technologies, including force fields onto which holographic images are projected. Speakers and fragranced atomisers create sounds and aromas. A sweeping, spacious feel is promoted by suspending participants on energy beams that move with their feet.

The ridiculous-looking goggles used in a standard virtual-reality scenario are redundant: participants, the theory goes, will just 'be there' - on safari in Africa or sipping sake atop Mount Fuji.

Doubters will be tempted to dismiss the idea as too way-out but the holodeck just might be within the realm of possibility. Already, some key pieces in the prismatic jigsaw exist. Technicians have developed technologies that enable us to walk through virtual environments. Think virtual aquariums and distant planet mock-ups. So, the holodeck might well be more than a mirage.

In 2007, the United States Marine Corps and the Office of Naval Research opened a so-called infantry immersive trainer facility at Camp Pendleton, in California. The US$1.3 million project was touted as the closest thing the US military has to a Star Trek-style holodeck.

'Fire teams or squads will participate within a 3D video game of urban-battlefield streets in life-size combat, driven by video-game simulations and interactive technologies that are more realistic and adaptable and easily incorporated into training facilities,' according to a report in the Training & Simulation Journal, a bi-monthly publication covering emerging trends in military training and simulation technologies.

An idealised version of such a holodeck training facility can be glimpsed in the 2006 movie X-Men: The Last Stand. At the fictional Xavier Institute, superhero Wolverine leads the training of mutant students in the Danger Room - a holographic training area where light projection and solid objects are combined for battle simulations.

A functioning holodeck would have strong market potential. Who would baulk at the chance to effect a radical change of scenery with- out the need to hop on a plane? It might particularly benefit the sick and the jaded alongside travellers of all stripes.

The dream device is all the more relevant this year, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing - a feat that also once seemed the stuff of dreams and acid trips.