The Holodeck Becomes a Reality

ABC News' Esther Young reports from London:

Imagine being able to see, hear, smell, touch and taste French cheese in a Paris setting – from an apartment in London. A new headset design revealed at the Pioneer Conference in London aims to stimulate all five senses in a way that takes users into an entirely new location and experience.

Developed by Alan Chalmers and Christopher Moir from Britain's Warwick University, and David Howard of the University of York, both in the United Kingdom, the headset would cover the user’s entire head. With attachments to the nose, ears and mouth, it transfers video, audio, taste and smell from one location to another. In effect, it creates a new reality for the user.

The developers are careful to describe the uniqueness of their brainchild. First, of course, is the scientific innovation behind it.

“It is not virtual reality,” said Chalmers, showing me a mock-up of the helmet, which he hopes to have fully ready in three to five years. “It’s real virtuality. It effectively takes someone to an African safari and lets them experience it as if they were there. It’s a more inexpensive way to travel.”

Their display had an early version of the experience – a sailboat trip. When I tried it out, putting on goggles, I saw the sails, heard the water and even felt wind (thanks to a wind machine). I was sprayed in the face with water.

“If we could, we would make the boat rock, but we can’t do that here,” lamented Howard.

Chalmers and Howard are currently working out the technological kinks of the headset.

While the visual and audio aspects of the headset are viable, the team is working on a way to simulating taste, touch and smell that works in conjunction with the video. Then, they hope to market “experience” packages -- that is, the experience of an African safari, or climbing Mount Everest. The next innovation would be real-time interaction with the environment.

Chalmers and Howard were also careful about some of the pitfalls of the technology – that is, the implications of offering technology that lets people experience events without actually having to be there.

“There should be serious social debate,” said Chalmers. “We seek to complement reality, not replace it.”

They mentioned that the technology could be useful for international business meetings, so partners could see each other and shake each other’s hands.

“But,” Chalmers stressed. “It will be a while before that happens.”

Until then, sign me up for the Santorini experience.

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