A Next Level I Want to Jump to…

Earlier today Microsoft announced some new technology they’re developing.  The idea itself is simple:  combine projectors and Kinect Cameras in such away as to totally cover a room in computer images that you can interact with.  I first read about it and saw the video on Engadget’s website;  however, it was on Maximum PC that I interacted with others.

The first response was to a Microsoft basher who thought the VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift currently in development were better than Microsoft’s unoriginal idea:

“You’re right about those headsets: They’re better with reality right now, and given the cost of painting a room or buying the proper setups, probably a lot cheaper as well. Right now for immersive reality, they’re the best option.

Yet, step outside of what currently exists and ask yourself: What is missing in both cases, and which one has a better shot of pulling it off?

The answer: Touch, or feel.

Currently for a VR headset you still need a controller to interact beyond simple head movement. In this case, you’re limited by what is available, which most likely is a controller or prop, and by no means can you interact with it like an object in the living room. Try touching an object on that VR screen – feel anything real? What if that object were placed in a box with other, similar objects, and you had to find it?

You laugh because how ridiculous and silly this setup seems – this stuff has been possible for a while, but the cost of it, like the Surface touch-tables a few years back, made it impractical for most. I can’t blame you for comparing it to a VR Headset, which has been in development for quite a few years in comparison.

I’m looking at bigger picture, why VR has never taken off, why, for all of the good the Oculus Rift will do for total immersion gaming and Heads-Up Displays for consumers, it will ultimately fail in the long term consumer market – and at the end of the day it will come down to comfort, laziness and ease of use.

To immerse someone in a headset with touch interaction, how would you get them to “feel” the objects they interact with? Right now it’s with controllers, yet were you shot in a COD-style game, only your hands would feel the vibrations of being shot. To do it on a larger, full-body scale would require a suit and a lot of study – and then you’d have to figure out how to keep the user safe in the process, to not die when he is “dying” in the game. That’s not accounting for the perverts who (you know this will happen) will want to be the first ones to cyber this way – and the hope that, when they climax, they don’t short out the suit or fry themselves in the process.

Now let’s re-examine this room setup again. Sure, the texturing’s far from perfect, and there’s little that’s going to make you believe you’re anywhere outside of a projected room, but you accomplished one of the first tasks necessary for something like this to work: Interacting with objects projected onto other objects. If you’re somewhat like me, you can see a number of areas to improve on this: adding more realism to what you interact with, making objects appears as holograms, adding the technical bits of realism necessary, eventually working your way towards physical feedback with interaction. While you’d have to figure out how the body senses and differentiates feelings and how to “project them,” the risk of this route towards anything that can fry yourself is different and has more potential. The solutions to this route, still in its rough infancy, allow for the user to jump in and immerse themselves without needing to change cloths or do anything out of the ordinary to interact with the environment around them.

As I said, beyond playing a life-size “Duck Hunt” through one of the many Windows-based Nintendo Emulators, there’s not much to be impressed about here right now. This being a Microsoft project, I don’t need to explain the bright side (having the resources to see this to a cost point effective for consumers,) but to get to the grander picture I just mentioned, we have to get past the starting points – which is what this video is.”

The second was a general comment, covering two more thoughts associated with this:

Damn – after talking all of the good possibilities with this, I have to remind people of the huge negatives – all of which revolve around the classic story “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury.

First, the idea may be credited to “Star Trek” by reporters, but in the book, which came before the first “Star Trek” TV series, the room in which the main character’s wife Mildred is set up with “parlor walls,” Gigantic TV’s to interact with. Sound familiar?

Thankfully, we’re not burning books or creating only mind-numbing shows – but we may not need to, when you think about it. We already have an obesity problem in the U.S., part of which can be attributed to the total immersion in media we have today. We have so many ways and reasons to sit on our butts and watch screens that we can veg out wherever we like. While the media has improved, producing smarter shows and games in the process, we’re also repeating a lot of “Classics” that are adding little to no value to our culture. While something like this has infinite potential, it will also have a learning curve in which much of what we do will simply be the fireworks factor (“Oooh! Aaah!”) for the next few years. By the time we pull it to the level of current TV, we may be facing that almost-mindless, numbed-to-nothing state.

This mindless zombie state bothers me a little: if you remember the opening parts with Mildred, you’ll remember her trying to overdose – then forgetting about it. While a lot of people could point to the big brother aspects involved with all of this (which are equally disturbing,) the hardest change in life is that which is biological and psychological. The bright side is, should it ever make it to consumers, it should be simple enough to set up and use, and has the potential, as the Wii and Kinect had, of getting people moving. (That Whack-A-Mole Game looks particularly intriguing!) However, with the amount of mental instability and problems stemming both directly and indirectly from the way we use media, we might be creating the very problem we’re trying to prevent the government from having the capability to do.

On a completely separate note – in spite of the big negative I pointed out – I’d love to work on this project. One of my dreams growing up, ever since seeing it in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” is playing on a life size, working Holodeck – it’s one of those things I had kinda hoped would hold off while I finished school to work on. The potential uses and abilities such a device would bring in the right hands could teach the next set of students in a faster, easier, and more forgiving way; it could turn an entertaining experience into an impact-bearing point on life. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Wonder if Microsoft would allow me to stay in Illinois…

Trust me when I say this:  Today’s announcement is probably one of the most impressive I’ve seen by MS in terms of technology development.  I’m not knocking the Oculus Rift or its competitors that are coming – in addition to perfecting interaction, there’ll still be uses for those devices beyond simple simulations and HUD’s well after such a room is completed – nor am I ignoring the potential harm that could result from it, especially in its current state.  Like most technological advancements, need and cost will determine how far all of these ideas come, but just being at this point, as simple as it sounds, is big enough to be excited about.  Some day – hopefully soon – we’ll be able to hug people from across the world without ever leaving our places.  I look forward to it.

P.S.  While what I described above might sound confusing and complicated, understand that many of these thoughts I’ve sat with since childhood.  Spotting these pieces are easy – trying to get them together?  That’s the real bitch.

P.P.S. I didn’t use links on either of my posts on Max PC, which is a damn shame – if you’ve never read “Farhenheit 451,” I highly recommend it.  Because it’s currently in print, the best I can do for you is point you to the Wikipedia and IMDB pages.  (Yes, they made it into a movie – however, this is one of those cases where, even if the book was worse, you’d still need to read it to get the full implications of things not dealt with or as well in the movie.  And yes, the movie is good.)

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