Virtual telephone box: the multisensory VR system living the holodeck dream

A fully immersive virtual reality system that satisfies all the senses could be the future of communication.

Designed as a modern-day version of a telephone box, the system combines Oculus Rift and VR headphones with heat, smell and breeze sources to create a completely immersive world where you can feel fires, smell flowers and sense an open window.

This achieved through a heater and fan built into the box, which are triggered at appropriate points in the virtual world.

Dubbed Omnipresence, the system is being developed by Robert André, an interaction a product designer and graduate student at legendary design college Ravensbourne.

André, who is developing the system as part of his MSc in Interactive Product Futures, sees the system as an affordable tool for immersive communication.

“Imagine it on every other street corner and used in the same way you used the telephone box in the past where you go in and you’re fully immersed in that conversation,” he said.

“So you go in and you want to talk to somebody in – I don’t know – Tahiti. You could meet them in Tahiti, or they could meet you in London, or alternatively they could meet you in any location available, just dial up the location that you want to be in and you’re there.”

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The idea of the system is to be able to provide a way of directly communicating with people anywhere in the world that is far superior to calls or video chat.

“The way that the prototype is at the moment, someone can leave a message for you, and rather than interacting with an avatar, you have an actual person there,” he said. “So you can see the whole facial features, the hand movements, the gestures.”

He plans to widen this in the future with the introduction of a scanning system that would allow people to appear in real-time to each other within the virtual environments.

An important aspect of the system has been keeping the components as affordable as possible so that the system can be used on a mass scale, rather than as a geek toy for the few.

“If the component parts can be really, really cheap it just becomes more available to people who wouldn’t normally afford it,” André explained.

“At the moment what I used for the unit was a fan that I had in my house, a heater that I bought off Amazon – it cost, I think, £10 – all the components are fairly cheap. The Oculus is £300, but Sony have the Morpheus coming out, Samsung are making something at the moment, Nintendo I’m sure will try again; it’s a good thing.”

At present the user moves through the world with the aid of a keyboard, but there are plans to use a foot-tapping device.

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André provided us with the opportunity to try the system, and it did not disappoint – it was actually an incredibly cool, futuristic experience, even in its current, rough-around-the-edges state.

In time we could see this being developed for a whole host of uses, including virtual holidays and gaming. But does André agree?

“I think the potential is quite broad. Some other people have talked about the potential of real-estate, checking out a home or something,” he said. “This is communications, so whether you are communicating with a friend of a colleague, or a suspect in a police case, then the location could vary, the ambience varies.”

He also sees the possibilities for education, and explained the system could be used by many people at once, such as a class of schoolchildren.

“It could be a school or it could be a museum, you could take them to anywhere in the past, anywhere in the future, any possible locations even outside of the confines of earth,” he said.

André is now looking for funding to develop the system into a finished product, and for the sake of everyone who’s dreamed of owning a holodeck, we hope he gets it soon.


Images courtesy of Robert André.


Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.