Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck allowed crewmembers to walk through their childhood home, re-enact famous historical events or watch performances of famous plays. It was also a consistent source of story lines for Star Trek writers who had nothing left to fall back on, because the holodeck offered so many opportunities to just make things up that didn't rely on logic or the Star Trek universe's core mythology.
Of course, if leisure time permitted they could also learn new skills or execute training drills by simulating surgery, flight, and engine repairs in a truly realistic environment but most of the time it involved being Sherlock Holmes or something like that.
Virtual life seemed pretty good on TV but it's still just science fiction for us. However, last year researchers took the first steps towards it with the COHERENT project, an EU-funded research project to create a commercial, true 3-D display.
They could have called it Holodeck 1.0. They went with HoloVizio instead.
The HoloVizio is a 3-D screen that will allow designers to visualize true 3-D models of cars, engines or components. Better yet, gesture recognition means that observers can manipulate the models by waving their hands in front of the screen. The function offers enormous scope for collaboration across the globe.
"The aim of the COHERENT project was to create a new networked holographic audio-visual platform to support real-time collaborative 3-D interaction between geographically distributed teams," explains Akos Demeter, spokesperson for the project.
Two applications drove the design of the basic networked audiovisual components – a collaborative visualisation system for the medical sector and a collaborative design review system for the automotive industry.
The researchers based the display component on innovative holographic techniques that can present, at natural human interaction scale, realistic animated 3-D images simultaneously to an unlimited number of freely moving viewers.
The upshot is that users do not need goggles, and the 3-D image is maintained as they move about – both in contrast with early attempts at holographic displays. But the real star of the Coherent project is not simply the display. The researchers made exciting advances in enabling applications that show the system's real potential.
The COMEDIA application, for example, uses raw data from medical imaging devices to create 3-D models of anatomy. The development, led by Coherent partner CRS4 Visual Computing, demonstrated the system to 50 clinicians in Italy.
"The strength of the COMEDIA system is related to the collaboration, discussion and evaluation of clinical cases, since it provides users with an immediate 3-D understanding of the anatomy shown," explains Demeter.
COMEDIA led to the 'Holo-Heart' series of seminars last year.
CRS4 also developed rendering and visualisation software that may reveal the artistic secrets of the great masters, like Michelangelo. A scan of his famous David revealed that the eyes diverge.
It is impossible to see this by standing in front of the statue, because of its height and the position of the left forearm. But it becomes clear when viewed through the COHERENT system, and theorists posit that Michelangelo wanted to present two different faces of the same character.
Coherent also led to the development of the COLLAUDA application for collaborative automotive design. The application, developed with CS Systemes d’Information and Peugeot in France, led to a series of demonstrations to potential end users.
The demonstration led to a new project collaboration, named ARIVA, which starts in June 2008.
Finally, COHERENT's researchers explored the potential for applying holographic systems for oil exploration, using Shell's data. The system displayed real examples of subsurface data. Holografika, the Hungarian research company behind the Holovizio system, developed a lot of the core technology used by the project.
In all, the team developed useful applications for a leading edge, emergent technology, explored excellent commercial opportunities and perfected holographic and allied systems for real-world use. The research also stimulated enormous interest in the area and prompted a wave of activity in the sector. But history, perhaps, will remember the Coherent project as the precursor to a real world holodeck.
The project received funding from the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research.
More on the COHERENT project.
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