Weird Science

Weird Science
How to Build a Holodeck

Tom Rhodes | 18 Mar 2008 14:02
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Claytronics shapes molecule-sized robots (called "catoms," a portmanteau of "claytronic" and "atom") with static fields, creating a "dynamic, 3-dimensional display of electronic information." Several papers have already been published on the concept, my favorite being "Adhesion and Anisotropic Friction Enhancements of Angled Heterogeneous Micro-Fiber Arrays with Spherical and Spatula Tips." I don't know what the hell it means, but it sounds impressive.

When completed, the catoms will be able to form tangible objects. They may even reach a stage where the objects will feel like whatever object they're mimicking, perhaps even water. It's no wonder Carnegie Mellon dubbed it the "Synthetic Reality Project."

The maturation of Claytronics is years, perhaps decades away, unfortunately. Thus far, the most promising step has been basic movement of small (but far from molecule-sized) catoms, sliding along one another's surface. Still, even this display is an exciting one, even if it sounds dirty.

Now we have all the pieces:

  1. An Omni-Directional Treadmill for free movement
  2. Photo-realistic scenes and characters based on advanced scanning techniques
  3. Complete speaker system integration and scent dispensing combinators that allow the world to sound and smell real
  4. Automatic creation of objects using Claytronics ...
  5. ... and freedom to interact with and move them at will.

Of course, we must also build walls designed to display realistic backdrops. The University of Calgary designed and produced a kind of projection system for walls called CAVE. While currently used for biometric images of the human body, it could be retrofitted to display a real-time world around the participant.

Engineers would have to work to fit all these items together inside a space the size of a medium-sized garage, while teams of computer programmers would create the interaction between the catom programs, the world-projection systems and the movement trackers. Then, after years of testing and tweaking, we would have built the first holodeck.

Much like the first generation iPods, it would be clunky and not work exactly as it should, but the income from such a device (probably in the hundreds of millions) would quickly increase research and development, eventually leading to the near-perfection that Star Trek showed us.


This was just a thought experiment, but there have to be engineers and designers working toward this goal even now. And, if not, take this idea and run with it! I want to experience a holodeck before I die. You've got some time with me, barring a horrifying encounter with a cross-town bus, but you shouldn't wait. Think of all the wonders we could create.

I'll be waiting.

Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] gmail [dot] com

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