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Just over a week ago Facebook’s CTO Mike Schroepfer promised to “effectively build a teleporter” by 2025, and even hardcore, optimistic techies had to raise an eyebrow in questioning cynicism. Reassuringly perhaps, he was talking about using virtual reality to transport us, as opposed to Star Trek’s dream of disassembling, shipping, and reassembling a physical form. Nevertheless, some current assessments of virtual reality’s capability (including Radu Rusu’s piece earlier this week) argue that it’s not realistic to believe we’ll soon be able to trick our senses into accepting you are somewhere you clearly are not. This is virtual reality’s version of the Turing Test, so it’s a massive deal for the technology.
Even as a staunch VR evangelist, I would have to concede that today’s production and headset capabilities fall dramatically short of the grand vision shared at Web Summit. But is the 10-year timeline to get there really so unrealistic? Below are the three big challenges the industry needs to overcome to reach a state of total immersion by 2025, and a prognosis on the likelihood of success.
Taking Touch Beyond Hand in Glove
Many VR systems in development will offer advanced haptics in the form of gloves that could replicate a handshake, a high five or the shock of ripping a five iron at Pebble Beach. But these gloves only cover a small range of everyday tactile experiences. For total sensory immersion to be a reality, a full-body suit would be needed to supply subtle sensations like the wind in your hair or the temperature differential in terms of stepping from the shade into the midday sun. The concept of a full-body immersion suit already has a strong sci-fi reference point in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One.
The closest we have to this vision right now is the Tesla Suit (no relation to Elon Musk’s electric sports car), which is a phenomenal piece of hardware, but remains a modular design and thus a partial full-body experience. However, given a decade of development, these suits could certainly be designed to replicate many of the sensory experiences the human body comes into contact with. It’s an ambitious vision, but given the existing capabilities, it is certainly within the realm of possibility.
So far so good, but touch might be the easy part. After “teleporting” to a new environment, what happens when you stroll into a coffee shop, grab a cup of Joe, and take a sip? Not much. Not only do you not get the fresh brewed smell, you don’t get the nutty coffee taste. Without this type of sensory immersion, the whole illusion falls flat and fails the teleportation test.
The two intrinsically linked senses of taste and smell could prove the biggest hurdles for Facebook’s vision. With “smellovision,” there are tremendous advances already underway. Feelreal has developed an add-on to its virtual reality mask that offers over 20 distinct smells. Other headset manufacturers will surely enter the multisensory space, and the library of virtual odors on offer will grow exponentially over the next decade.
But taste goes beyond smell and offers a much larger challenge. The early stages of research of how taste can be replicated in virtual reality are underway. In 2013, a team from the National University of Singapore developed a “digital taste simulator” with silver electrodes that deliver sensations to the tongue, replicating sweet and salty. The researchers are even developing their interface into a digital lollipop.
Taking taste to the next level will involve moving beyond pure flavor and working in some of the innovation in haptics. It’s certainly feasible that within 10 years we’ll see a VR mouth piece that not only recognizes flavors but also textures and heat.
It might not seem immediately appealing to strap a series of nodes to your tongue, but people will likely feel more comfortable experimenting as their experiences with VR increase. Still, there’s a lot of work to do in this arena to make it a reality.
Keep on Moving
Those who’ve tried VR headsets will know that, even with the cordless variety, moving around can be perilous. Most systems use head movement, hand controllers, or eye tracking to achieve navigation, keeping the physical user stock still. This makes it difficult to become so immersed that you believe you are actually within a virtual world.
VR teleportation will require us to move freely within the virtual reality world, in the same way that we do in the real world – walking, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, etc. That’s more than possible to replicate pretty well within the headset visually, but how do you create a physical environment in the real world that keeps the “teleporter” safe as they rush across landscapes that exist before their eyes, but do not surround their actual physical body?
The development here will likely be in three stages. First, omnidirectional treadmills that enable movement in any direction, allowing users to run or walk the full gamut of the experience. This could create experiences not dissimilar from the Holodeck in Star Trek. An early innovator here is Virtuix, with its “Omni,” designed for gaming.
Next would be a bridge stage where experiences are designed for standardized pre-fabricated rooms or environments. Imagine you can go to a facility in your hometown which provides a melded virtual and augmented reality experience with people all over the world who are in similar physical environments. The live streaming capability to interact with other users in real time is already well developed, so creating physical spaces that allow users to have the same experience safely could be powerful. Curated VR experiences could become a big event industry as the progression to total immersion develops.
The final stage of development for uninhibited movement could be the mind-blowing tie in of 3D printing, with landscapes evolving around you as you move. Imagine the virtual world being created around you as you move through it and then removed and recycled. If virtual reality and 3D printing advance at the same speed and can dovetail, there’s no doubt that the cross of the two could create an unfathomably realistic “teleportation”-style experience. Likely, we’ll see people installing more complex, in-home VR for truly immersive experiences like this, while mobile head-mounted devices offer augmented reality and less immersive VR experiences on the go.
The challenges to meet the bold vision of a teleportation test laid out by Facebook’s Schroepfer are not insignificant, but it probably sounded just as hyperbolic for Kennedy to say in 1961 that they’d put a man on the moon within 10 years.
With close to a decade in hand, the teleportation vision is one that should inspire and ignite everybody working in the virtual reality field.
Endri Tolka is COO and cofounder of YouVisit.
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