Virtual reality has been knocking around for decades without ever quite hitting the mainstream–apart from in a limited 3D-goggle sense. But that hasn’t stopped a U.K. team from putting together a gadget that takes the technology to the next dimension in reality simulation. And no, it’s not the 4th dimension–it’s the sensory dimension.
Yup, the Virtual Cocoon will attempt to replicate not only 3D stereoscopic world-views, but also sound, smells, tastes, and even sensations. For real. It’s basically designed to fool you as much as possible into thinking the virtual world you’re experiencing is much more real than current VR tech does. Smell, for example, is a sense that’s wired up to our brains so strongly that the slightest whiff can trigger off powerful memories.
The Cocoon has an HD video display system that’s also got a high dynamic range. It can produce an image ten times darker or 30 times brighter than conventional display tech, and that’ll make it much closer to “real” vision. A tube runs beneath the wearer’s nose, much like a hospital oxygen feed, and delivers puffs of chemicals to mimic scents, which also emulates taste (the two sensations are closely linked–drink orange juice and lemon juice with your eyes closed and holding your nose, and you’ll be surprised how similar they taste) with the help of an in-mouth device that can also simulate textures. Heat and humidity inside the helmet can be controlled by a fan and heater system, there’s also surround-sound, and “tactile” systems akin to haptic-feedback devices deliver touch sensations elsewhere on the body.
The team thinks the Cocoon will be useful for teaching–feeling and smelling the plains of Africa or the sensory-overload from an ancient city like Rome would be very powerful–or even for long-distance business meetings, to make the interaction much more personal than an emotionless video- or phone-call. (Ed note: Sounds a bit too personal for a business meeting.)
As Professor Alan Chalmers of the University of Warwick team working on the device puts it: “The idea is not to replace reality, but compliment it.” Most of the tech is already in place, so he thinks the helmet may be a commercial product within five years. And since a prototype was demoed this week, and Warwick has a very pro-business and innovation philosophy, he may well be right. Professor David Howard of York University–the other research partner–also points out that “VR projects have typically only focused on one or two of the five senses – usually sight and hearing,” and notes that he’s unaware of such a comprehensive VR unit being developed anywhere else.
Of course if it’s successful at emulating reality more closely than current VR tech, then there’ll be three groups clamoring for a piece of the action: the military, games companies, and the porn industry, for hugely obvious reasons.