I had a wonderful lunch meeting this week with a colleague who does research involving localized sound synthesis. She told me that we now have the necessary computer power (thanks to Moore’s Law) to compute real-time localized sound. In other words, you can compute a synthetic soundscape for a listener’s two ears so that any sound can appear to originate from a particular location in space. This means, for example, that you can place a virtual radio in a room, and make it seem as though the sound is coming from the radio — even though there is no actual radio.
The only remaining bottleneck to this process is tracking the exact position and orientation of the listener’s head. Fortunately, that is one of the problems we are already tackling for ambiscopic interfaces. Which means that as we create virtual visual objects in the environment around you, we will also be able to have those objects make sounds.
So everyone will be able to walk around seeing and hearing virtual objects, but we still won’t be able to touch those objects. So it won’t quite be like holodeck we all saw in Star Trek, the Next Generation. But maybe there is something we can do about that.
There was a time, not all that long ago in history, when if you said that people would one day deliberately have their corneas burned by powerful lasers so they wouldn’t need to wear eyeglasses, everyone would think you were insane. But of course today we have Lasik surgery, and nobody thinks anything of it.
Similarly, if today you said that we will one day deliberately implant chips in our fingers to artificially stimulate the nerves in our fingertips, most people will just become uncomfortable and try to change the subject. But once there is an omnipresent virtual visual and auditory world that we all take for granted, coexisting with our physical reality, cultural values will start to shift.
Also, in just a few years from now the technique of embedding tiny devices that stimulate individual nerves in the fingers (which is vastly easier than implanting chips to stimulate entire arrays of brain neurons) will become a commercially viable proposition, and at that point the technology will start to make the familiar transition from a specialty operation to a high-end entitlement to a widely available consumer option, as have dental implants, liposuction and Lasik surgery in their time.
Some time in the next ten to fifteen years, we will all be able not just to see and hear, but to feel the virtual world around us.