From Thin Air: The Quest to Build a Star Trek Holodeck

Oddly, the Star Trek cannon is light on these moral-philosophical issues. We do though, in between Geordi’s foray and the real Dr. Brahms showing up, actually get a holodeck themed episode that digs deep into a troubled psyche, with sexy results. Sort of. In Hollow Pursuits (3×21), we meet Lt. Reginald Barclay and he gets into some trouble for recreating other crewmembers on the holodeck. He casts Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher as lovesick vixens and Commander Riker as a doofus, for example. We learn, though, that he has an illness known as holodiction that sort of caused him to do it. Can we blame him? I’d not only have holodiction, but they probably would’ve named it after me. Even Counselor Troi is on his side, at first. “There’s nothing wrong with a healthy fantasy life, as long as it doesn’t take over,” she tells a very peeved Commander Riker. She thinks they can learn more about what’s troubling Barclay by exploring the world he’s created. Sounds reasonable. “This is not without its element of humor,” she says. Then she stumbles across Barclay’s holographic version of herself.

Holo-Troi: I am the Goddess of Empathy. Cast off your inhibitions and embrace love, truth, joy…

LaForge: Oh. My. God.

Holo-Troi: Discard your façades, and reveal your true being to me.

Troi: [indignantly] Computer, discontinue…

Riker: Computer, belay that order! [to Troi] We want to get more insight into what’s been troubling this poor man, remember? [to LaForge] Quite a healthy fantasy life, wouldn’t you say?

LaForge: [agreeing] Mm.

Troi: Goddess of empathy
The goddess of empathy.

I wish they’d played this up even more. We do see, later in Voyager, when Barclay’s left the Enterprise and is working the Pathfinder Project at Starfleet Command, that holodiction remains a struggle for him (Voyager, Pathfinder, 6×10). Trying to figure out a way to bring Voyager home from the Delta quadrant, he recreates the ship and the crew on the holodeck and turns it into his own little version of Cheers. Everyone there seems to know his name, and they’re always glad he came. He even slept there. The only thing missing was that no one shouted Barclay! when he walked through the door.

I don’t think I’m too off base assuming such fanciful technology would be an issue for us 21st century mortals the way it is for the weak-minded Barclay. It’s interesting that Star Trek’s writers chose to imbue a recurring character with holodiction, as opposed to one of the regulars. Maybe that’s why they had such trouble dramatizing the seedier side of the tech, and therefore didn’t do it often. It was relegated to the sidelines because admitting someone like Riker or Picard could be addicted to the holodeck would put a big crack in the façade of the evolved sensibilities of 24th century humans. We do have to give them credit for tackling it as much as they did, I guess. Someone had to lay the groundwork for the kinds of scifi stories we do, thankfully, see today.

I also don’t think the implications are as lost on us in the real world as they were on my 10-year-old self. Our computers are already porn machines. Thirty percent of all web traffic goes to porn sites and Xvideos, the Youtube of porn, receives about 4.4 billion page views a month. That’s twice what Internet giant Reddit gets.

And even if you take the sex out of it, we still worry that some people spend too much of their time absorbed in online social networking like Facebook and Twitter instead of real-world interaction. Some research even suggests we develop addictions to these kinds of computer-mediated communication channels because we can control them more than we can the low-tech, face-to-face interpersonal kind. One Facebook addiction study says “people scoring high on narcissism tend to be more active on social network sites, as social network sites provide an opportunity to present oneself in a favorable way in line with one’s ideal self.”

Imagine the havoc technology could wreak if it not only lets you shape yourself to be anyone you want to be, but lets you shape other people, too, like Barclay did with Troi and Riker. Trouble communicating with your wife? Make a holowife who just gets you a little better. Boss riding you too hard at work? Turn him into a Robin Hood-esque merry man and kick his ass at fencing, or something like that.

The author of that Facebook study told The Huffington Post that younger people seem to be more susceptible to this kind of addiction, but so are those who find life a little too intimidating, for one reason or another. “[P]eople who are anxious and socially insecure use Facebook more than those with lower scores on those traits, probably because those who are anxious find it easier to communicate via social media than face-to-face.” That’s Barclay, almost too a tee. Some research even suggests that the lure of entertainment like social media may even be harder to resist than our desire for sex. Technology that combines the two the way a holodeck does? Resistance could be futile.

OUR HOLO LIVES

While we don’t have holodecks, holograms are more a part of our everyday lives than you might realize. Pull out your wallet. If you’re like me, you have a half-dozen or so holograms stuck on your bank cards and driver’s license. These kinds of holograms are “reflective,” but they are born from the same process as the “transmission” kind we most often think of. Surprisingly, the images we usually call holograms, like slain rapper Tupac Shakur’s performance at Coachella in 2012, aren’t really holography at all. Instead, they’re just a two-dimensional image projected on some glass or another substrate. The effect is popular with theme park rides, like Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Tower of Terror. Even CNN got in on the act during the 2008 election. This kind of projection gives that hazy, glowy, supernatural holographic-like look, but the images lack some defining characteristics of true holograms, like redundancy and three dimensions. Take that Tupac image. While it simulated three dimensions, the problem is that if two of us look at it from different angles, we’d see the same simulated perspective regardless of where we were standing. With a real hologram, if we looked at it at the same time from different sides, we’d see different perspectives, as if the object was physically in the space with us.

Creating a true hologram isn’t even that difficult. Make a recording of a three-dimensional object and then, using light, recreate the three-dimensional object from the recording. With a few inexpensive tools, like a laser pointer and some mirrors, you can even create your own holograms at home.

There are two basic steps. The first is to pass a laser through a beam splitter. A beam splitter is pretty much what it sounds like, a device that uses mirrors and prisms to split the laser into two separate beams: a reference beam and an object beam. After being split, each beam is routed via mirrors through special lenses that scatter them into wide swaths of light. The object beam hits the three-dimensional object (another mirror is probably required to angle it properly) and bounces onto a piece of holographic film. The second beam, the reference beam, passes through its lens and straight onto the holographic film. It never touches the object being recorded, but the way it interacts with the light from the object beam is important—it’s this interaction, or interference, that actually results in the recorded information.