2019-03-21

Holodeck, Here We Come


I watched Captain Marvel the day after opening day. As you can imagine, it was not easy to find three contiguous seats in the early evening for a massively popular movie. Still, I managed to do it by using Cinemark's mobile application, which enables you to see all possible reserved seats for all possible show times.

I didn't even have to sit on the front row (why do they even sell those seats?). I did, however, have to choose seats that seemed to be unwanted by most people: "D-Box seats." Prior to my arrival at the movie theater that evening, I had no idea what "D-Box seats" were, and the Cinemark website was decidedly vague on what I was in store for. As it turns out, they were kind of neat; I'm not sure that they were worth the extra ticket cost, but they definitely enhanced my movie-going experience.

You've probably experienced something like "D-Box seats" in a science museum before. Basically, the seats are bonded leather recliners attached to a mechanical platform that leans, turns, and vibrates in coordination with the movie. So, whenever there is a big explosion, the seats vibrate. Whenever there is a flying scene, the seats move and sway right along with the camera angles to make you feel like you're "there." I can imagine that in an iMax theater with 3-D glasses, the effect is quite incredible.

It was a good experience, and I recommend that anyone who likes action movies give it a try, at least once, to see whether it's "for you."

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So "D-Box seat" technology exists.

Zwift also exists. Zwift is a pretty interesting phone/tablet app that can be used in conjunction with an indoor bicycle trainer, which is a contraption that you can attach in place of your road bike's rear wheel, so that your nice road bike functions like a spin bike, with varying levels of resistance. The way Zwift works is that it displays landscapes such as roads in Paris, London, New York City, and even imaginary landscapes, as you ride your indoor trainer. Within the Zwift application, you have an avatar, a cyclist who looks like you, with your name on it, that rides through these landscapes as you ride your indoor trainer. You can even see other Zwift riders' avatars as they ride along the same courses, and you can race against them or just ride with them.

It's an elegant combination of a racing video game, "Second Life," and indoor training. The workouts you do through Zwift can also be uploaded to Strava, complete with GPS information. So, at least digitally speaking, it's almost exactly like "being there." It's a novel and fun idea, and if I can ever justify the overhead cost of the necessary equipment, I might give it a try myself. It certainly looks like a good time.

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Another thing that exists is virtual reality technology.

Lately a few companies have either released or announced the future release of new virtual reality technology. Oculus recently announced the "Rift S" package, which is a substantial technological upgrade from its existing Rift technology. Magic Leap, the virtual reality technology that has been promising big things for a few years now, finally looks like it's getting ready to deliver on its promise. And almost every higher-end smartphone is capable of limited virtual and augmented reality technology.

That includes, for example, Samsung's "Bixby Vision" app, which enables users to look through their phone's cameras and find out information about major landmarks, translate text written in foreign languages, shop for any item contained in the viewfinder, and so on.

The era of virtual reality, heralded since at least the 1980s, is almost upon us.

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The so-called "Internet of Things" is something I have previously criticized for not being particularly useful, but it is a kind of technology that exists.

In particular, smart light-bulbs, smart speakers, and smart temperature thermostats can all be coordinated through a central hub - be it something like an Echo device or some other such central hub - to produce home ambiances that can enhance a person's quality of life. One oft-touted way of doing this would be to create a "scene," coordinating a variety of your home smart devices, that enhances your morning routine. With present and affordable technology, it is possible to set specific lighting throughout your home when it's time to wake up, turn on your favorite music at the correct volume and in the correct rooms in the house, turn on your coffee machine so that your coffee finishes brewing right as you step into the kitchen, and so on.

Or, you could set a homecoming routine, so that whenever your car arrives home from work, the garage door automatically opens, the house lights turn on, the temperature inside your home adjusts to your preference, the door unlocks to let you in, etc.

There are people who like to set up their homes this way because it's their hobby. Some of us like to run, some of us like to build model trains and dioramas, and some of us like to set up smart home technology. It's an expensive hobby for as little utility it brings to your daily routine, but for those who enjoy the process of making their homes high-tech, who am I to question?

The point is, this technology exists.

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A few years before the internet was formally released to every household with a modem, Frank Zappa wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book about how all of the underlying technology involving computers, telephony, and audio/video already existed. He envisions - and predicted - that this technology could be set up to deliver any kind of music or video to public consumers any time they wanted it. Ten years after he wrote about it, it was a blasé part of every-day life: the internet.

Now let's think about all of the technologies I've just listed above: virtual reality, smart home technology, virtual indoor bicycle training, and mechanized furniture that moves in conjunction with audiovisual cues.

Imagine that you built a room or a shed, equipped with its own HVAC, driven by a "Nest" smart thermostat. Imagine that the room temperature could be coordinated with the brightening and dimming of the interior lighting. Imagine that the temperature and lighting could both be triggered by audiovisual cues produced by virtual gaming system, with sounds coming from surround sound speakers installed throughout the room. Imagine that the floor of the room, or a small platform in the center of the room, was attached to a machine that gently vibrated, twisted, and leaned in conjunction with the same set of audiovisual cues, and that a person riding an bicycle trainer on the platform, or running on a treadmill on the platform, was wearing a virtual reality headset that could display any course on Zwift, or indeed any landscape available on Google Earth.

In such a room, a person could take a virtual tour of any such landscape, feeling the temperature of the air, the slopes of the landscapes, racing against other athletes from around the world, or even just taking a nice stroll around a foreign city; or perhaps even Mars!

The really amazing thing about all of this is that the technology already exists. Most of it is available at reasonable middle class prices. And my prediction is that VR rooms like this will be here very soon.

Holodeck, here we come.

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