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

Then there’s Microsoft. In 2012, the company took what many thought was a step toward a real-life holodeck when it received a patent for an “immersive display experience” that would project “a peripheral image onto environmental surfaces around the user,” like the walls and chairs in your room.

Microsoft Holodeck Patent
In a recent patent filing, Microsoft submitted an image of what many considered the first step toward a Star Trek-style holodeck.

“The peripheral images serve as an extension to a primary image displayed on a primary display.” It works with a tracking device, like Microsoft’s infrared Kinect sensor and a proposed “depth camera” that could gather three-dimensional information about the room and properly configure projected images in a way unique to its environment.

It’s not hard to see how this might also begin to make holographic user interfaces plausible. Kinect already features hand tracking. Whenever I want to log in or select a game menu, I just raise my arm. Combine this with our still nascent ability to project images in the air, and you have something even Star Trek didn’t do. This kind of user interface would benefit greatly from some tactile feedback, so our lack of force fields might hold it up. But, there’s some research that suggests, at least in terms of a UI, that ultrasound might be able to provide adequate sensation, so maybe it’ll be here sooner than I think.

Holograms might also prove useful in data storage. The tech isn’t as sexy as a holodeck, and attempts to bring even it to market have so far failed. The first startup to demonstrate a prototype all the way back in 2005 went bankrupt after burning through more than $100 million in funding. A new company picked up its plans, but they’ve already missed initial ship dates. We still might see something in 2013, but not on the consumer end. It’ll probably be marketed to big companies with special data archiving needs. What’s so special about holographic storage? Holographic discs promise huge capacity at amazing speed. They’re an optical media like today’s CDs and DVDs, using light to read and write, but they hold data in three dimensions instead of two.

Star Trek Voyager The Doctor
Star Trek Voyager’s doctor was an emergency medical hologram.

All of this is to say nothing of Voyager’s Doctor, an Emergency Medical Hologram who takes over when the ship’s human doctor is killed. We’ll talk more about the Doctor in the chapter on artificial life forms—the real secret behind him is artificial intelligence—but his physical presence is created the same way as any other holodeck character, just with custom holoemitters built into key areas of the ship, like sickbay. When we finally do tackle the holodeck challenge, we’ll probably have the ability to create him as well, or at least something a lot like him.

Until then, we’re going to have to settle for the real thing when we want… a close approximation of the real thing. Maybe that’ll always be better, though. Maybe we’ll find that a simulation made of light and energy, no matter how real it feels, will never match the actual, physical touch of honest-to-God flesh and blood. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-holodeck. I’ll be the first in line when these things become a reality and I’ll cut anyone who tries to take my place. But a little soul-searching won’t hurt, either. We’re curious creatures with strange predilections, and we can’t always be trusted to do what’s best for ourselves. When it comes to technological progress, I think an excellent question to always go along with “can we?” is “and should we?”

Maybe, though, by the time the first holodeck shows up, we’ll have evolved to the point that we can handle the technology with a little more responsibility, with a conscious nod toward our own emotional well being. Maybe we’ll decide the benefits, like truly safe sex, outweigh the risks. And there are other applications beyond entertainment: training first-responders, soldiers, doctors. Physical rehabilitation. Prototype design. The list just goes on and on.

I known I’ve thrown out a lot of questions for a technology that, on Star Trek’s timeline, is still three centuries away. I think we’ll do better than that, though. Maybe a lot better. Maybe someone out there reading this will be the one who brings us this revolutionary piece of technology, first imagined decades earlier on a television show. I’ll leave the answers to all the questions to you, just—whatever you do—don’t forget my invite to the launch party.

End program.

Note: This post is adapted from the book Treknology: Star Trek’s Tech 300 Years Ahead of the Future.