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Microsoft Sketches Out Holodeck-ish Tech in Patent App

By Peter Suciu
Sep 12, 2012 2:34 PM PT

Microsoft apparently is looking to make so-called virtual reality an actual reality with what it calls an "immersive display experience," based on a patent application published last week.

Microsoft Sketches Out Holodeck-ish Tech in Patent App

Microsoft Holodeck
(Image: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)
(click image to enlarge)

The patent application, filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2011, would allow a standard video game system with a connected "environmental display" to project an image that "appears to surround the user."

This certainly sounds like something out of science fiction, but can it become something of science fact?

It's "the 'holodeck' technology," said Billy Pidgeon, analyst with M2 Research. "It sounds like something that is really ambitious. But with things like that, it could sound too promising, and the reality comes up far short."

Microsoft did not respond to our request for further details.

Back to Reality

The concept of holographic display technology certainly recalls the "holodeck" made famous on TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series. In fact, it has been a staple in science fiction for decades, appearing in Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Farenheit 451. It actually turned up first in his 1950 short story "The Veldt," which was originally published as "The World the Children Made," which tells of a virtual nursery where the users can experience any place they imagine.

While Microsoft's patent application doesn't come close to realizing Bradbury's vision, the question is whether it could be a step in that direction. There's also the risk it will lead consumers to expect too much too soon.

Microsoft needs "to manage the expectations properly. That is the big concern here," Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld. "This isn't really much more than a patent application."

In other words, no one should expect to see a virtual reality game system available for the holiday gift-giving season.

Holographic Dreams

The other outstanding issue with this technology is how exactly it might eventually fit into people's homes? The diagram accompanying the patent shows project technology casting an image on a wall with plenty of room for a would-be gamer to become immersed in the experience.

"In the average New York City apartment, you can't get a Kinect working properly as you don't have a enough depth of field," observed Pidgeon. "This isn't going to be practical in your average living room either. Most people don't have four walls, with no windows and nothing in the room. That is a big problem in making this technology a reality."

Even as a gaming device it could be a problem to make holographic technology viable.

Still, "in a world where smartphones have developed into a cross between Star Fleet-issue communicators and tricorders, who are we to argue against the potential of home holodecks?" asked George T. Chronis, editor of DFC Dossier.

"There are some real practical considerations for a consumer product such as this," he noted. "Can you imagine playing "Madden NFL" in a dorm room in such a configuration? How many consumers have a dining hall or garage they want to convert to a home holodeck?"

"The next practical issue is price," Chronis told TechNewsWorld. "Can you market a one-size-fits-all product to convert a room into a 3D projection space at a price that average consumers will not scoff at? For now, we will add this technology to our list of really cool ideas, and wait to see what Microsoft ends up coming up with down the road."

Of course, the patent application just means that Microsoft is dreaming holographic dreams, but it brings up another point. What exactly does Microsoft -- or any developer of this sort of technology -- really hope to accomplish? Microsoft certainly isn't alone in pursuing it, so what is the end game, besides potential gaming technology?

"There are actually a number of people working on holographic technology," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"Like 3D, we'll likely find that it will be easier to create the technology than it will be to figure out how to use it in a way that is both cost-effective and compelling," he said.

"Initially, best uses currently in place are for healthcare -- virtual surgery -- and CAD, to visibly manipulate machine concepts in real space," Enderle told TechNewsWorld. "This technology is natural for certain types of games and for creative activities, but the hope that it could eventually displace 2D displays isn't yet grounded in reality."

Advancements in Motion Control

The final piece of the equation could be that Microsoft wants to stay a step ahead of its rivals -- not only in virtual reality and augmented reality technology, but also in the video game space in general. It was certainly a step behind when Nintendo introduced its Wii gaming system that included motion control. Both Microsoft and rival Sony had to play catch up and introduce their own respective motion control systems.

The patent application does indicate future potential developments for Microsoft's Kinect motion and voice control technology. In addition to not being ideal for those who live in tight urban apartments, the motion control technology has never quite lived up to its initial promise. It is possible the holographic technology could be a step in improving it.

"Microsoft needs to tighten up the motion and gesture control, and I'm sure they are doing that for the next version of the Kinect," noted Pidgeon. "They may come up with ways of using this tech that are more exciting than what they show now."

Still, the issues of space and practicality remain.

"They could do a lot -- but we'll have to wait and see," Pidgeon suggested. "What it does show is a projection on the wall, but it doesn't look practical. There are still aspects that are not immediately apparent from the patent."

However, given that many people embrace anything close to science fiction, Microsoft could be on to something.

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