Emerging Tech

Microsoft Sketches Out Holodeck-ish Tech in Patent App

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

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 aconnected “environmental display” to project an image that “appears tosurround the user.”

This certainly sounds like something out of science fiction, but canit 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 recallsthe “holodeck” made famous on TV’s”Star Trek: The Next Generation” series. In fact, it has been astaple in science fiction for decades, appearing in Ray Bradbury’s1953 novel Farenheit 451. It actually turned up first in his 1950short story “The Veldt,” which was originally published as “The Worldthe Children Made,” which tells of a virtual nursery where the users can experience any place they imagine.

While Microsoft’spatent application doesn’t come close to realizing Bradbury’s vision, the question is whether it could be a step inthat 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 bigconcern here,” Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld. “This isn’t really muchmore than a patent application.”

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

Holographic Dreams

The other outstanding issue with this technology is how exactly it might eventuallyfit into people’s homes? The diagram accompanying thepatent shows project technology casting an image on a wall with plentyof 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 workingproperly 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 theroom. That is a big problem in making this technology a reality.”

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

Still, “in a world where smartphones have developed into a cross betweenStar Fleet-issue communicators and tricorders, who are we to argueagainst the potential of home holodecks?” asked George T. Chronis,editor of DFC Dossier.

“There are some real practical considerations for a consumer productsuch as this,” he noted. “Can you imagine playing “Madden NFL” in adorm room in such a configuration? How many consumers have a dininghall or garage they want to convert to a home holodeck?”

“The next practical issue is price,” Chronis told TechNewsWorld. “Canyou market a one-size-fits-all product to convert a room into a 3Dprojection 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, butit brings up another point. What exactly does Microsoft — or anydeveloper of this sort of technology — really hope to accomplish?Microsoft certainly isn’t alone in pursuing it, so what is the endgame, besides potential gaming technology?

“There are actually a number of people working on holographictechnology,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“Like 3D, we’ll likely find that it will be easier to create thetechnology than it will be to figure out how to use it in a way thatis both cost-effective and compelling,” he said.

“Initially, best uses currently in place are for healthcare — virtualsurgery — and CAD, to visibly manipulate machine concepts in realspace,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “This technology is natural forcertain types of games and for creative activities, but the hope thatit could eventually displace 2D displays isn’t yet grounded inreality.”

Advancements in Motion Control

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

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

“Microsoft needs to tighten up the motion and gesture control, and I’msure they are doing that for the next version of the Kinect,” notedPidgeon. “They may come up with ways of using this tech that are moreexciting 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,” Pidgeonsuggested. “What it does show is a projection on the wall, but itdoesn’t look practical. There are still aspects that are notimmediately apparent from the patent.”

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

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