The idea of creating a fully virtual world sounds divine. Literally. However, before people can create their private Eden, they must first get the technology that will enable it.
Let’s begin with the fact that in this experiment, we will completely ignore the problems of computing power that we would need, for example, to create a digital copy of our planet. Or the whole Solar System… If we to go crazy, let’s do it the whole way… The thing is that it comes down to a correspondingly large number of teraflops. Someone who would have divine power, in this case, us, would also have all the computing power possible. So let’s just assume that in the near future this problem will be solved by quantum supercomputers.
Total immersion in virtual reality: everything depends on the brain
The problem is not the power of a possible creator (although a good processor such as Intel Core i7 generation 8 is also important), but only how to convince the brain that the virtual reality is the one… the real one. How to make our virtual world to be indistinguishable? So that our brain could not distinguish the analog world from the real one. There is no other way bout to cheat your senses.
We perceive the reality through the senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight and the accompanying additional (but necessary) vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The latter two work in a more or less the same way: the vestibular sense deals with the detection of movement and is the support to our balance. The proprioceptive sense informs us about the position of our body. Thanks to them, we know that we sit, put the fork in our mouth and go up the stairs without looking on the ground. It is possible to find out how important it is to read a book by the late world-famous neurologist Oliver Sacks “A man who mistook his wife’s head with a hat” in the chapter entitled “A discarnate woman.”
Thanks to the brain, we think that we think.
Our senses do not transmit the full spectrum of the reality to our brain. They are not perfect enough. For example, our eyes can not see in the infrared, and the ears do not register very high frequencies. These limitations will probably make it easier for future designers of virtual worlds who will definitely want to make their life easier. Well, but before anyone can deal with their creation, we have to figure out how to trick our brain so that it can not distinguish virtual reality from the real one?
How to convince our senses to VR?
For now, it is simply impossible. Michael Abrash, director of the R & D department at Oculus Rift – the company that currently has the best VR device – said more or less the same during his presentation at the Oculus Summit in Las Vegas. That is why Abrash wants to focus on improving the displays in Oculus and improving the algorithms responsible for surrounding sound. In his opinion, dealing with the other senses at this stage does not make sense.
Other authors from Koei Tecmo, which mainly deals in the production and publishing of computer games, have a different opinion on the topic and are now working on Koei Tecmo Wave, which is an advanced VR simulator. The device is a little like a photo booth, in which you enter, to take a few portrait shots instantly.
The machine is of course used to play in a virtual reality. The players will feel the smell, touch, wind on their faces, or changes in temperature. Sounds nice right? At least in the announcements. In reality, however, it will be huge, heavy and unwieldy equipment, which at most will be found only in Japanese playgrounds and in the homes of very wealthy geeks.
And remember, if the displayed image, even in such a capsule, would have any sense, it must be spatial. Depth mapping is just as important as displaying all the details. This particular issue is being dealt with by Intel, which developed Intel RealSense technology.
As part of this technology, Intel offers specific solutions, including cameras with depth detection systems and Intel RealSense D400 series depth modules, which are used in devices where depth perception is extremely important.
Koei Tecmo VR booth is not the only company that is crazy about VR projects. The British company Ultrahaptics is working on the simulation of the sense of touch. The idea is quite clever and involves the stimulation of skin receptors. The idea is a key word here. The British do not have a ready solution yet. There is an idea to create a sensor suit but it seems impossible for now.
Without a suit, you can not control the temperature of the virtual environment. Well, there is also an idea for that … This time it comes from the South Korean company Tegway from Korea Advanced Institute of Science in Technology. Koreans are developing a material called ThermoReal and are currently at the stage of early prototypes.
And what about the smell? After all, it is the fragrance that is the strongest carrier of our memories and emotions. Fragrances are millions of molecules registered by receptors in our noses. Odor generators, or a little more complex air fresheners, will never be able to cope with the task of deceiving our mind well enough. Well, unless someone creates a device with interchangeable refills, which would be able to instantly produce any odor occurring on Earth. In addition, such a device would also need to mix fragrances in the same time, but also to remove them, for example when we enter a cozy cafe filled with the scent of coffee in a virtual world from a fanciful street smelling of rain.
It’s hard to say that a company that has already developed such a generator (Japanese Vaqso) has succeeded. Their device is compatible with today’s generation of VR goggles, which emits … three fragrances. You can only hope that, according to Vaqso, the future Eden will smell more like the selected Yankee Candle fragrance than a car-shaped Christmas tree freshener. Odors do not work on the principle of image or sound – they are not wavelengths of a certain length so that they could be easily translated into computer language, only chemical particles that match the right receptors in our nose can.
The above solutions are primitive half-measures
Let assume for a moment that all the above constructions will hit the market and allow full immersion in the virtual world. Goggles on the eyes (we assume that they are wireless), headphones with surround sound, breathing apparatus with the function of odor emission and thermoelectric coverall with the function of stimulating the sense of touch with ultrasounds. Would you really wear all that? Just putting it on would take too much time, not to mention that after putting on such a suit, a man would look like he was taken out of some cheap BDSM production.
Besides, we still have not solved the issue of free movement in the vr. We can always buy something in the style of a multidirectional treadmill for this whole set, but again – this is another half-measure. None of these solutions is associated with either a matrix or a dream paradise. At least not so much that we could talk about a total immersion in virtual reality that would be indistinguishable from the real world.
The ideal interface that would allow it would have to send and receive signals directly from the human brain. In addition, during such a connection, a person would have to be completely immobilized in the real world, and the signals concerning the whole movement would have to be instantly depicted by his virtual avatar (remember the movie “Surrogates” with Bruce Willis in one of the main roles?). For now, it is simply impossible.
First of all, we still do not have enough knowledge about the human brain to think about connecting it to any two-way interface. Secondly, such a connection would not be wireless. Total immersion would require surgery, during which a very advanced implant would be installed in the brain, with a huge bandwidth when it comes to transmitting and receiving data from the VR server. For now, however, we can only dream of such a solution, because no one has completely managed to map the human brain. The closest to this achievement is the US military agency DARPA, which is working hard to create a one-way brain-computer interface. With it, people will be able to control the computer with thoughts.
There is no possibility of creating the speech simulation. The studies on senses continue however and at the end of last year, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh managed to get a two-way connection with the volunteer’s brain. Thanks to this, the patient “felt” what was captured by the robotic prosthesis of the hand. For this to happen, two electrodes were inserted into the patient’s sensory cortex, which was then connected with robo-prosthesis cables. Note, however, that despite all the technological advancement, the whole solution is – to put it mildly – quite primitive and very inaccurate. The DARPA project is based, on wireless communication using EEG (electroencephalography), the possibilities of which are quite limited. The thing looks a bit drastic, see for yourself:
So for now, we will not move to our private matrix. We lack appropriate technologies, fast computers and knowledge about the human brain, without which it is simply unrealistic to create a suitable and two-way interface. And without huge progress in many fields of science (the most important of which will be neuro-biology), it will remain so for a long time.
I’m not even sure if anyone will be interested in quite expensive research to make that vision come true. Much more useful, from a business point of view, seems to be developing augmented reality, which by definition does not have to fully simulate the real world.
The worst thing in hell is that you do not know if you’re not in it anymore.
José Carlos Somoza, “Klara and semi-darkness”
There is also the issue of installing an implant in your head that would be able to transfer our mind to virtual worlds, which from our perspective would be very real. However, many of them don’t have to be necessarily pleasant.