It won't take our brains long to accept virtual reality, but once it does, it will want to go further. Sight and hearing are already beyond the wall, but the other senses?
There are not a few companies trying to provide virtual reality of all possible sizes. The future is just badly distributed, someone said. Touch will be the first thing we can bring to VR. Maybe even the taste and the sense of smell. And to walk in virtual reality? Holotron wondered. And so do I.
This is not an easy problem to solve.
Virtual reality slowly guides us towards a future of total (and voluntary) physical immersion, capable of replicating experiences through all our senses.
Because when we interact with the world, the world interacts with us. To truly feel as though we are physically inhabiting a virtual world, or to precisely control a robotic telepresence somewhere else on the planet, the virtual world must be able to exert forces on the body even as we operate against it. When you hit a wall in virtual reality, your hand must stop. When you want to walk in virtual reality, you encounter the resistance of the ground, and so on.
A wetsuit VR it will have to perfectly measure the force you are exerting, while exerting an appropriate force in reverse, at any angle, on any part of the body.
It's a hardware nightmare.
Let's leave aside the billion-dollar Holy Grail of virtual sex, which will make companies rich to make it happen.
Let's take a look at how a German company is trying to replicate the simple physical experience of walking in virtual reality. Simple, as mentioned, not even for a dream.
Holotron is trying this with an exoskeleton that stresses the whole lower part of the body. Doctor Marcel Reese has realized the first prototype of a working system to walk in virtual reality virtually indistinguishable from reality.
Holotron: walking in virtual reality as if you were in reality ... real
The Holotron, as he calls it, starts by suspending you off the floor, which means it can decide where the floor is in the virtual world, what angle and how it moves. This first, important difference means that Holotron can also make you experience the physical sensations of a jump, or of remaining suspended in the air.
The legs are placed in a sturdy frame covered in motors and sensors, which Reese says work at low latency to track leg movements providing resistance and strength of movement where appropriate.
Reese tested the Holotron at one twentieth of normal Earth's gravity, making walking and jumping in VR less laborious than in real life, but still providing a user with a sense of strength and balance.
Currently the Holotron prototype only has motors in the hip and knee joints, but future plans will extend the five-motor system to each leg, and possibly later to the arms, hands and back as well.
How Holotron will evolve
The prototype, I have to say from conscience, is ugly to make you cry. But that's how we start, isn't it? Over time, that huge wooden frame can be replaced by a multi-axis device fixed to the wall and floor. A real movement station that would allow us not only to walk in virtual reality, but to simulate experiences such as swimming, flying, a somersault, a leap into the void.
Subsequent updates, Reese says, will deliver "high-resolution tactile feedback for all parts of the body, thermal feedback, smell and taste."
It sounds crazy and ambitious to me, but in the long run, virtual reality could really substitute for many of the sensory experiences.
It will be necessary?
It's tempting to say that this kind of thing won't help in the end, that VR and AR will enter traditional life in far less intrusive ways.
True, they will; Oculus and other headsets are about to demonstrate how immersive you can be in a virtual world even with a light and cheap device. And imagine how efficient portable virtual reality will be in 10 or 20 years.
But at some point, people will want to involve more parts of the body.