Season 1, episode 3, “Code of Honor”
Lesson: realistic haptic feedback is essential for a true augmented reality simulation
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
Lutan, the leader of a technologically backwards planet, has access to an important vaccine that the Federation needs badly. The Enterprise has to go through the motions of courting him and his team, including showing him around the ship. Lutan is attracted to Lieutenant Yar, the ship’s female security chief, and asks her to give him a private showing of the Holodeck. Long story short: he abducts her, the Enterprise crew has to jump through a bunch of hoops of negotiation and ultimately a battle to the death all while trying to respect Lutan’s customs, but he turns out not to be true to his word.
The obvious lessons of this episode could have been around keeping your word in a business negotiation, or a feminist message around not underestimating strong women (Lieutenant Yar), but I’m sure those will come up again later and I’m anxious to get to my favorite technology on the Enterprise: the Holodeck.
There could still be plenty of cool tech that I don’t know about yet with 174 episodes of this show left, but as a previous non-watcher of Star Trek, the Holodeck is the one that’s had the biggest impact on pop culture. Everyone knows the reference. If you’re an alien who doesn’t know the reference, the Holodeck is “a chamber or facility in which a user can experience a holographic or computer-simulated physical environment.” It’s mixed reality, a combination of augmented and virtual realities (AR and VR). The show introduces the Holodeck in episode 1 where Riker finds Data sitting in a computer-generated tree in a jungle. He demonstrates the physical boundaries of the room by throwing a rock, which hits a force field marking its real walls.
There is so much to talk about with the Holodeck that I’m limiting myself to one subset of it for now: that realistic haptic feedback is essential for a truly immersive augmented reality simulation.
After being impressed by her martial arts skills, Lutan asks Yar for a demonstration of her training in the “famous” Holodeck. We see the boundaries of the room outlined in a yellow grid. Then Yar generates a mat, an Aikido robe for herself, and a sparring partner. She fights with the CG partner, flipping him over, and then invites Lutan’s second in command to do the same. He gets trounced. Lutan marvels that “a force like that can not possibly come from an image,” meaning that he’s amazed that the Holodeck fighter has physical form and force despite being a hologram.
This point is important: it’s not merely the projected images that give the Holodeck its utility; it’s that it creates physical, interactive objects with their own programmed behaviors. You touch them and cannot walk through them. Yar could probably train against a projected hologram if she had no other option, but the impact of encountering a solid object is what’s most meaningful for her application.
We are in the infancy of AR and VR today. While they’re exciting and I love a lot of what already exists, it’s their potential that’s much more interesting. Just look at all these use cases (and those are fairly near-term). But one of the major downsides of today’s solutions is a total failure to provide the feeling of encountering physical objects. Your mind suspends its disbelief to an amazing extent when you’re in AR or VR, but nothing available today is fully immersive. You don’t forget what’s real, mostly because you can’t touch anything. There’s nothing like walking through a wall or putting your hand through a desk to take you out of a simulation.
I’ve seen and tested so many accessories attempting to provide a realistic sense of touch in AR and VR, and they’re all crap. A thimble-like device that squeezes your finger, ultrasonic waves that blow up at your hands, vibrating controllers, pulsing gloves, gloves with restricted grip ranges, and even full bodysuits: nothing comes close to solving the problem of “a wall should feel like a wall.” I don’t think Yar would be as big of a badass in real fights if she’d been training by getting a slight pulse in her fist when she punched a guy in the face.
I’m not saying it’s a simple problem. It’s just that it’s way too early for a winner in this space because very few people have access to AR and VR today, no technology today provides what people actually want (touching hard surfaces), and the ecosystem isn’t mature enough where if that tech did exist, it could integrate with most of the developers building AR/VR experiences. Sure, we will have half-measures as we build up to “real” haptics, but they’ll be nice-to-have features rather than essential ones. If you figure this out, email me. I will fund you.
One other observation: I have an HTC Vive for VR, and when you walk around the room where you’ve set it up and get close to a wall, you see it outlined as a green grid. It’d be cool if that was a throwback to the yellow Holodeck grid.
Next up: season 1, episode 4, “The Last Outpost.”