THE FUTURE OF VIRTUAL REALITY
- PROGRAMMABLE MATTER
- "THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF"
- TO BE, OR NOT TO BE?
- VERTEBRANE - ENTER THE MATRIX
- ELECTRONIC TRANSCENDENCE
THE FUTURE OF VIRTUAL REALITY
What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can hear, what you can smell, taste and feel, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
- Morpheus (The Matrix)
Everything we experience in life can be reduced to electrical activity stimulating our brains as our sensory organs deliver information about the external world. This interpretation is what we consider to be "reality." In this sense, the brain is reality. Everything you see, hear, feel, taste and smell is an interpretation of what's outside, and created entirely inside your head. We tend to believe that this interpretation matches very closely to the external world. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is the brain that "sees", and in some important ways what it sees does not reflect the information it derives from sensory input. For this reason, we are all living in our own reality simulations - abstractions - that we construct as a result of both what we perceive with our senses and how our brains modify this perception. Such things as color, smell and taste, for example are not properties of the outside world itself, but rather a category created by the process of perception. In order to experience the world in a meaningful way, the brain must act as a filter/interference between us and the "real" world.
Words have always been a crude method of relaying intent. VR holds out the promise of allowing us to literally show one another what we mean rather than merely describing it with crude verbal approximations. The limitation of words is that the meaning they convey is only as detailed as the definitions the reader or listener attaches to them. For this reason VR offers the possibility of evolving our communication into a kind of telepathy, ultimately bridging the gap between our discrete imaginations. "This is what virtual reality holds out to us - the possibility of walking into the constructs of the imagination." - Terence McKenna
VR is the ultimate medium of syntactical intent; the only way to figuratively "show" someone exactly what you mean is to literally show them. Words are exceptionally ineffective at conveying meaning, as they are a low-bandwidth, lossy medium of knowledge transference. VR will let us remove the ambiguity that is the discrepancy between our internal dictionaries and bypass communication through symbolism altogether. The result will be perfect understanding, as all parties behold the same information.
Utility fog (or UFog) is a hypothetical collection of micro-scale robots that work in tandem to achieve certain functions. Microscopic robots, called foglets, would have twelve arms apiece - each with four degrees of freedom - that extend outwards from a dodecahedron (twelve sided) shaped robotic center, and would link together mechanically with other foglets to produce a continuous substance. Foglets would share both energy and information with their neighbors. Billions of foglets could co-ordinate their actions to form an intelligent cloud, capable of changing its macroscopic structure as well as physical/optical properties over a wide range, enabling the construction of temporary 'objects' in three-dimensional space. Though foglets would have dimensions measured in micrometers, their realization will require full molecular manufacturing capabilities. An individual foglet would contain a sophisticated onboard nanocomputer - in effect creating a reconfigurable array of smart matter. Applications for UFog would extend well beyond simulation capabilities, making possible novel applications such as a super-seatbelt that would spring into action when needed, and allow uniform deceleration in the event of a collision.
"THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF"
The "foglets" of utility fog would function as "intelligent matter," working together in vast numbers to create virtual objects in actual 3D space. Individual foglets float like tiny dust particles suspended in the air, and would occupy only about 2-3% of the volume they fill. Their arms are very long compared to the central body of the foglet.
Foglets are a very advanced technology, however the only technological breakthrough required to build them is molecular manufacturing itself. Namely, the molecular assembler - a "proposed device able to guide chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules with atomic precision" as defined by K. Eric Drexler, the man who popularized the term "nanotechnology." Foglets would form a stable material by joining arms in twelve different directions in order to form a sort of robotic, isotropic (equal in all directions) crystal lattice. Each arm is capable of 4 Degrees Of Freedom (DOF) - telescoping in and out with a relatively powerful motor, as well as waving back and forth in two directions with a relatively weak motor used to align the arms. Twelve arms provides the most stable configuration, with the fewest motors and allows the foglets to briefly let go of one another in order to re-position themselves, while maintaining enough connections to retain their strength as a macroscopic substance. Each arm has a three-finger gripper with one additional DOF - rotation. In all, each foglet robot has 12 arms with 4 DOF apiece for a total of 48 DOF. The grippers are designed for the sole purpose of coupling with the gripper of another foglet. The arms do not have to be in perfect alignment for the coupling to occur. Besides structural support, both information and energy is shared between individual foglets when linked together. The geometry of the foglets cause all stresses to be distributed longitudinally along the length of the joined arms.
The material properties of a mass of foglets are determined by their programming. Sensors in each arm of the foglets allow them to sense the forces involved and respond appropriately as a coherent whole. For instance, if you wanted to simulate a soft material, the foglets would be programmed to retract their arms when there are forces compressing them, and extend when forces are pulling on the arms. If you wanted to simulate a hard, brittle substance, the foglets would need to resist forces up to a point, and then let go. An elastic substance could be simulated by foglets programmed to allow the arms to extend or retract with some resistance when they sense forces pulling on or pushing against the arms, and then quickly return to their original position when the forces are removed. To simulate a liquid, foglets would be programmed to maintain an equal, average arm extension length and do whatever the forces indicate. When an arm reaches its maximum extension length, it would let go and grab the next unoccupied arm that comes within reach. To simulate gas, all arm extensions combined would need to vary proportionally to all of the forces on the arms. Foglets can use their own power to resist movement, so properties such as viscosity and density can be manipulated between anything from an apparent vacuum to a dense solid. Foglets are therefore capable of simulating the three classical states of matter (solid, liquid and gas.) But, it doesn't end there!
Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Utility Fog is one such technology. Not only can UFog be used to replicate any entire environment so as to look convincingly real to human senses, but it can also do things that are otherwise impossible, and would appear completely magical. Apparently 'solid' objects could be made to "appear" out of thin "air", or "liquid." Or, solids could spontaneously turn to liquids or altogether disappear. A person embedded in UFog could alter the behaviour (programming) of the fog through any kind of interface such as a controller, verbal commands, or even a mind machine interface. It would then become possible to create or destroy anything made of UFog, levitate objects, manipulate (hit, bend, pull or squeeze, etc.) real objects at a distance, change your apparent size relative to your environment, or even teleport (virtually) between UFog environments through nearly any combination of telepresence/virtual reality. A library of programs to simulate any material or object could be called up or turned off at will, giving the operator almost godlike powers.
"More ambitiously, since you're embedded in the Fog, it can sense every detail of your bodily position. It forms a "whole-body dataglove", and you can control it with extremely subtle gestures. At the ultimate extreme, the Foglets can carry various special sensors ranging from simple electrodes with voltmeters to SQIDs and form an extremely high bandwidth polygraph. With proper programming the Fog would almost be able to read your mind. This combination of extreme reactivity to control and virtually limitless creative and operational ability suggest a comparison with the Krell machine in "Forbidden Planet"."
Foglets would only need to be small enough to be able to arrange themselves to create the appearance of a smooth surface. This size is determined by the resoultion of human senses, and works out to be between 5 and 100 (microns.) Of course, if 100% believability is not required, much larger scale foglets could be used, perhaps as large as several centimeters or more in diameter. Such robots could feasibly be built today, but would be far too expensive to produce with today's manufacturing methods. ~1 mm foglets would be able to do everything that smaller, super high resolution foglets are capable of, except they would have granulation similar to the effect of pixelation of a low resolution digital image. To fill a house size area with 1 mm foglets, you would need one trillion of them. Using high resolution foglets, you would require between 1 quadrillion and 8 quintillion of them.
Foglets will not have the ability to self-reproduce, so there is no risk of a grey-goo type senario with them. Foglets would take up only a small fraction of the air in a room, so there is plenty left to breathe. Fog could be programmed to leave a no-fog zone around a person, or it could actually enter the lungs (while simulating the density and viscosity of air), and actively remove any pollution. In the event of a power failure, foglets would activate a failsafe mode where they retract their arms to become as small as possible - causing them to settle first into a thick smoke, and ultimately a clay-like layer.
Like all technologies, UFog could be misused by those with negative intentions. One can imagine that fog could be used to trap or otherwise harm someone if intentially misused.
When it comes right down to it, having a physical body in a reality constrained by the limitations of the physical laws has many drawbacks. Our bodies are extremely fragile and can be damaged or killed in an instant if we are not careful, or are just plain unlucky. If anything goes wrong with a critical body part, the entire body could die. Our physical bodies are also deteriorated by aging. Either way, for now, if your body dies, your brain dies right along with it. Every human brain contains an immense wealth of information, memories, experiences and relationships. Every time a human brain dies, that incredible, unique wealth of knowledge dies with it, and is forever lost. The world is a dangerous place to inhabit in a fragile human body, and there are a lot of other problems that come with having a physical presence in a physical world. Using the bathroom, body odor, difficulty traveling, limitation of possibilities, just to name a few. Up to this point, we have had no alternative to life, besides death. Due to nanotechnology, there may come a time when people will actually have a choice between life in the "real world," an existence inside a computer generated simulation, or death.
Reality has certain limitations which virtual reality will be able to circumvent. For instance, moving from one location to another in the real world requires moving your physical body, which is constrained by the laws of physics. The human body is a very delicate thing, subject to damage extremely easily from many influences. Transportation can also take up a lot of time. What if these dangers and constraints could be entirely eliminated?
Many of our technologies have in common the attempt to remove the limitations of our physicality. For example, telephones (which are actually a type of VR) enable us to talk to people who are too far from us in 3D space to talk to without using technology. The Internet allows us to meet and interact in a common (usually 2D, so far) virtual environment, regardless of where we are physically. The Internet, in its current form is a mostly two-dimensional virtual environment that allows people to meet and exchange ideas and information. For now, this remains a very flat experience, involving only 2D sight, and sound. SecondLife is one of the earliest indications of what the future Internet may be like. It will gain a 3rd dimension and begin involving more of the senses. It will also gain realism as bandwidth increases without end.
Virtual reality (or a virtual environment) is the projection of artificial stimuli upon the the senses in order to create the interpretation of being in a different location in space-time. It will even allow us to create virtual worlds that do not and cannot exist in the 'real' universe.
In 2010 it is already possible to create a 100% realistic simulation of sound and vision, albeit on a very limited scale. The main limiting factor at the moment in the way of full-immersion visual-auditory VR is computer processing speed. VR requires real-time processing of a large amount of data to construct a dynamic simulated representation of an environment on the fly.
The goal we have been steadily heading towards for a very long time, is the complete dissolution of all the restrictions we were born with. Virtual reality is the ultimate tool to remove ALL of the restrictions imposed by being made of matter in a universe bound by laws. It is the only way we will ever escape these laws, it is an all-round more attractive option than living in a real body, over time it will become the norm, and ultimately the destiny of "humanity". Acceptance occurs gradually, and so will the development of a technological replacement for reality itself.
"A bold scientist will be able to tap the contents of his mind and transfer them into the metallic lattices of a computer... It can be said that this scientist has entered the computer and now dwells in it. At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh... It is in control of its own destiny - housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in its span of years - such a life could live forever." - Robert Jastrow
VERTEBRANE - ENTER THE MATRIX
"Vertebrane" is the term for a speculative brain-computer interface technology first proposed by Marshall Brain in the book Manna. The technology consists of a computer system packaged as a replacement for one of the upper cervical vertebra in the human spine.
The Vertebrane system taps into all sensory and motor nerve bundles flowing to and from the brain. Vertebrane allows for augmented reality or a complete disconnection of the brain from the biological body and subsequent electronic reconnection to a virtual body typically inhabiting a virtual world. It would be the "ultimate videogame controller."
Everything you enjoy about the real world and your real body it will be possible to duplicate exactly in the virtual environment. It will also be possible to improve everything you enjoy, and make virtually (pun intended) anything that was once impossible, possible for you.
The Vertebrane system itself would consist of a diminutive, yet extremely powerful nanocomputer. Power would come from a small onboard fuel cell that uses blood glucose to generate electricity. The system would be installed by a robotic surgeon which would sever the spinal cord and reroute it into the Vertebrane. All sensory nerve pathways (optic, auditory etc.) would be tapped into the system. In pass-through mode, the Vertebrane would act as if it was not there, and you would be able to function completely normally. In "game" mode, the vertebrane would disconnect your brain from your body and reconnect it to your virtual avatar. The avatar would have all of the approximately 640 muscles as your real body, and your brain would control them all in the exact same manner it controls your biological muscles. The avatar would have virtual senses to replace all of your natural senses. This would create a completely immersive experience, and when in use, you would live inside a virtual reality every bit as real as the "real" world itself.
Interestingly, your avatar's body and senses will actually be better than your natural senses in many ways. For example, your virtual eyes will have the same resolution, however there will be no distortion from a imperfect biological lenses, you will never have to blink, your eyes will never dry out, or cloud up. Your muscles will be perfect - never tiring or overheating - unless you adjust the settings so they do. Your virtual body will be superhuman, perfect, and beautiful. The virtual worlds you visit will out-do "reality" in every way, and they will be every bit as real to your brain.
"The in-game world will match your in-game body. It will surpass reality. Imagine, for example, looking at a grassy field in a game. As you walk onto the field it will be perfect. Each blade of grass will be perfectly formed. It will have no weeds. You will be able, if you choose, to take your clothes off and roll in this perfect grass. It will feel just like grass, smell like grass, bounce like grass, taste like grass. But this is a simulated world, so if you want it one inch thicker or a slightly different shade of green, the change is instant. Change the breed of the grass, the moisture content, the soil underneath it, even add weeds if you want. To your brain the grass will be completely real because the grass's sensations are flowing directly through the brain's natural sensory nerve channels.
The same will be true of every in-game environment you experience. Run through a forest. Ski down a mountain. Stroll through a complete re-creation of Paris. Walk on the moon. Swim along a perfectly simulated coral reef.
But in addition, you will be able to do things that your physical body cannot possibly do now. Fly through the air like superman. Ride a magic carpet. Get shot at the OK Corral and then respawn to do it again." - Marshall Brain
With Vertebrane, you will be able to visit any simulated location instantly - even imaginary worlds. You will also have the option of visiting different times as well as different places. You will be able to fly, be present at any historical moment, be wealthy without limit, be as beautiful as you want, die and be reborn, eat anything you like in any quantity, or just sit on a tropical beach and sunbathe - all without ever leaving home! In short, you can be anyone and do anything you like. You can choose to have these experiences with your friends and family, or with artificial people, or simply alone.
The Day You Discard Your Body:
Given the choice of being in your real body vs. your avatar, you will choose your avatar every time. Therefore, your biological body will become redundant and irrelevant. It will become possible to discard your body and have only your brain housed in a Brain Storage Facility, connected to a vertebrane-type computer. Here, along with thousands of other brains, your brain will be encased in a protective, liquid-filled life-support system chamber. This will eliminate all of the risks that come along with having a body. It will also greatly increase longevity by keeping the environmental conditions perpetually at ideal levels, and removing almost all risk factors of your previous life. Brain Storage Facilities will be maximum security, reinforced buildings, impervious to earthquakes, hurricanes, bombs, etc.
Incredibly, it is possible to envision something even more radical than disembodied human brains connected to a matrix-esque simulated reality. The ultimate in virtual reality involves discarding not only your physical body, but also your physical brain. "Mind uploading," "whole brain emulation," or "mind transfer" is the theoretical process of transferring the essence of a biological brain into a computer system. There are several proposed techniques by which mind uploading could be achieved. Many mainstream research funders are not convinced of its feasibility; however some scientists do believe that this hypothetical and futuristic technology will one day become reality, so to speak.
Mind uploading, if it turns out to be possible at all, will likely first happen in the 2040s, depending on the level of detail that is required to capture all essential information in the neuronal structure of an organic brain. Substantial computer processing power and digital information storage would be required to digitalize and run a functional analog of the brain's ~100 billion neurons. Religious and philosophical issues such as the existence of a soul and the nature of "self" will ultimately determine if any level of technological prowess will ever enable a biological consciousness to be transferred to an artificial substrate.
Once uploaded, a mind would achieve immortality, existing as pure information, disassociated from the biological body and brain. The upload would be considered a form of artificial intelligence, sometimes referred to as an "infomorph" or "noomorph." A digital mind could theoretically be backed up, copied, or restarted at various set points, raising interesting questions regarding individuality and identity.