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Making the holodeck a virtual reality

From Star Trek to PlayStation VR: Here's how '90s science fiction influenced the headsets you can buy today and shows where they're heading.

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Yara Shahidi Winter 2018 cover

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Mark Mann

Warp drives, transporters and food replicators: All are astounding technological leaps that exist only in the fictional world of Star Trek. Hope as we may for such a bright future, we're nowhere near making them a reality. But there is one Star Trek technology that you can experience even today, at least in a sharply limited form.

The Enterprise's holodeck — a virtual environment where crew members could roam freely and interact as if in the real world — is the dream uniting both video game fans and virtual reality (VR) developers. Enabling its users to experience another world with all senses and without goggles, it exemplifies what the ultimate VR experience could be. The problem? Though virtual reality is finally affordable enough for mainstream consumers, we're light-years from that point.

Holodecks for everybody?

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Data (Brent Spiner) and Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) explore a virtual San Francisco in Star Trek: The Next Generation

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A version of the holodeck first appeared as the "recreation room" in 1974 in the "Star Trek: The Animated Series" episode "The Practical Joker." It wasn't until 1988 in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Big Goodbye" that the holodeck played a central part of the plot.

Written by Tracy Tormé, the TNG episode features Captain Jean-Luc Picard playing his favorite fictional character, private detective Dixon Hill, in a 1940s San Francisco scenario. Due to a glitch, this becomes more than just a simulation -- even though the San Franciscans they encounter and the streets they walk on are virtual creations, gunshots, for example, have the capacity to wound or kill.

Fiction it is, but the holodeck fantasy continually guides VR developers in one way or another. Nvidia, for example, uses it as the name for its professional VR collaboration tool. Like the rest of the industry, the company looks to Star Trek and science fiction to push the VR envelope.

"I've been reading books about this for ages: 'Neuromancer' is a classic book, and certainly 'Ready Player One,'" says Greg Jones, global manager of enterprise VR business development, who works on Nvidia's Holodeck. "The Star Trek holodeck — all are great use cases of what VR could be."

Unlike the holodeck, which was a physical place, William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer imagined something more ephemeral. His characters visited a "matrix" that simulated the five senses with goggles, implants and electrodes. Jones says we shouldn't count on that becoming real either, at least anytime soon.

"The technology's going at its own pace and the public and the [VR content] authors are asking, 'How far will those go?'" Jones says. "But the ability to touch, taste and smell [in a VR experience]... they're still quite a ways off."

At the moment we're still stuck in a VR era last depicted in The Lawnmower Man. In the 1992 film, a simple gardener named Jobe becomes a guinea pig for an evil corporation bent on creating supersoldiers through virtual reality gloves and goggles.

"The Lawnmower Man was the first film to ever use the term virtual reality," director Brett Leonard told website UploadVR in 2016. "No one called it virtual reality before then."

Around the same time that Jobe was wreaking cinematic havoc, one of the first virtual reality games, Dactyl Nightmare, appeared in arcades. It featured a small "pen," a contained space that users could move around in while wearing the now-familiar tethered goggles and controllers.

Though the special equipment it required limited its appeal — it wasn't a game you could play at home — the biggest disappointment of early VR was Nintendo's Virtual Boy console. Released in 1995, the gaming system was just a 3D headset on a fixed stand and it quickly disappeared from the market. Without any better products to steal the public's attention, interest in gaming VR quickly waned by the mid-'90s. The technology just couldn't keep up with the expectations of the audience.

Despite the failure of VR's first wave, Hollywood still had a taste for it, with films such as Hackers (1995), The Matrix (1999) and The Cell (2000) featuring VR-like equipment. Even a 1993 episode of Murder, She Wrote featured perpetual crime fighter Jessica Fletcher helping to solve the murder of a VR game's designer.

A second wind

Thirty years after Captain Picard explored a virtual San Francisco, VR has evolved into an estimated $7 billion business and growing, according to research company Greenlight Insights.

Oculus was one of the first companies to pick up the threads left from the 1990s by creating the Oculus Go, a self-contained VR gaming headset with an amazing display and a starting price of $299, far cheaper than previous VR headsets.

Hollywood also is revisiting VR in recent films like Ready Player One, released in March, and last summer's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But as with Star Trek and Lawnmower Man, scriptwriters are still depicting VR more advanced than the VR technology in use now.

Valerian, for example, imagines VR as commonplace in the future, but the film's visual effects supervisor, Martin Hill, says one problem with today's VR is that it's still looking for the "killer app" to make it widely used.

"What will be the interesting applications that are really going to capture people's imaginations?" Hill says. "I think there've been some really good VR experiences, but I'm really looking forward to what's coming in the next few years."

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Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier

Lori Grunin/CNET

But as with smart glasses and other devices, there are still concerns that need to be overcome. Computer scientist Jaron Lanier, whose technology was prominently featured in "Lawnmower Man," still works in VR today. He says we have a chance now to fix potential problems with VR before the technologies advance too far, and become a "direct brain thing or whatever."

Lanier told CNET's Book Club podcast that he's kind of optimistic about things. "Overall, I think that VR really can turn into a beautiful thing, but in the near term we have to be critical about it."

He says he favors huge headsets as a way to counter the "sneakiness" of devices such as the Snapchat Spectacles, even if huge headsets are about as far as you can get from the Star Trek holodeck.

As we wait to play Dixon Hill ourselves, newer and greater virtual experiences will come along. But for now, at least, devices like the Oculus Go and the PlayStation VR can help rewrite the rules about how good stories are told and how we experience them. 

This story appears in the Fall 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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