My son’s future — on the holodeck

My son wants to design space stations for a living. But he also wants to raise cows — he will inherit the family farm.

My son wants to follow in the footsteps of both his grandfathers — the aerospace engineer and the dairy farmer. But the kinds of hands-on engineering jobs he would want would be on-site, either in aerospace factories and other facilities, or in space itself.  Not here in Western Massachusetts.

And he doesn’t want to sit at the computer all day, he wants a job where he can move around.

Okay, sure, there are worse problems for a teenager to have.

But I’m sure a lot of folks are in similar situations. They need to reconcile different needs, or give up on possibly key aspects of their lives. People who live in rural areas but want city jobs. People who are handicapped in some way that employers think makes them unsuitable for the work they most want to do. People who have to choose between their dream jobs and their families, or their friends, or their spouses. (Between 20 and 40 percent of workers on foreign assignments return home early because their families can’t adjust.)

The typical answer is telecommuting, but that has its share of problems. Everything from not enough supervision of employees, to workers becoming workaholics, or socially isolated. And it can hurt career prospects.

The fact is, despite email and instant messaging and video Skype, telecommuters aren’t actually THERE with their coworkers, subordinates, and bosses. In fact, video Skype can underscore how far away someone is — you can see that they’re far away, wearing different clothes, perhaps even in a different time zone.

But, for my son, the big problem is that telecommuting is a computer job — and he doesn’t want to sit and type all day.

Of course, a lot of jobs these days require typing. Most of the work engineers do — whether creating CAD/CAM drawings or drawing up project schedules — is done on computer.

But you try to explain that to a kid who hates to sit still.

I can sympathize. Despite the fact that most of my working life has been behind a desk, the jobs where I had the most fun were those where I was running around. Even waitressing, for me, was more fun than the typesetting job I had previously — even though the typesetting job was at a newspaper, with fun people, and the waitressing job … well, let’s not go into that. And I really loved the reporting assignments where I got to be active, chasing sources across hotel lobbies, airports, and — on horseback — mountain ranges.

But then I realized: my son and I were comparing careers as they were now. Not as they are going to be ten years in the future, when he graduates from college or grad school.

Instead, we need to look at one of the best predictors of workplace technology out there — gaming. Games had graphical interfaces long before Windows. Kids had mice before the adults did. We were playing online games long before companies went on the Web.

And, today, the games are immersive 3D, with gesture interfaces.

So let’s take that a few years into the future. Microsoft Kinect-style technology becomes common for a variety of different applications. Immersive 3D is ubiquitous. And screens get super cheap.

What do we get? You probably guessed from the title — the holodeck.

Star Trek holodeck. (Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.)

Okay, we won’t get the Star Trek holodeck. That one didn’t just have 3D images — it also had forcefields to simulate touch, could create a copy of any physical object and had the ability to generate self-aware virtual people. I doubt that we’ll be that far along in a decade.

But think about what we can do just with the technology we already have: gesture-based interfaces, 3D screens, and immersive virtual environments.

There’s a spare bedroom off the kitchen that we occasionally use as an office. We could cover the walls with screens. Ceiling and floor, as well — why not?

You step into the room, and you’re stepping into your virtual workspace. You can meet with colleagues. You can work with them on engineering drawings — that float in front of you — and then instantly turn them into life-size virtual mockups.

You create things not by typing in commands, but by gesturing or speaking. You move not by pressing an up arrow, but by walking in place. If you want to look in a different direction, you simply turn around.

Now that is something my son could do.

We joked about him working on space stations designs with his team one minute, and ducking out of the room to deal with crying babies or barking dogs the next.

His colleagues might be located anywhere on the planet — and he can have as much facetime with them as he needs, not by looking at them in a video window, but by sharing a common virtual space. He can wander to the virtual offices of his subordinates to see what they’re working on, or call them into his office for a private meeting. He can take virtual field trips to other companies’ offices, to research institutions, to industry conferences, to vendors, to the manufacturing facilities, and construction sites.

He’ll still probably have to make occasional trips out to physical locations — but he’ll be going to places he’s already familiar with, to be with people he’s already well connected to.

For some examples of what that might look like check out these videos made with Sony PlayStation technology, or this one with the Kinect, or this video of other technology Microsoft is building to create a holodeck, or this TED presentation by David Thornburg about the educational holodeck, or check out Google Galaxy, or VisionaiR 3D’s Simulation Cube, or EON Reality’s Icube, or these videos about 3D teleconferencing with Kinect.

Or you could watch Star Trek re-runs.

This is why I’m excited about the gaming industry. Not just because it’s now a multi-billion dollar market. Or because games are fun to play. Though those are nice. But because it’s gaming that will be driving this technology at the early stages. There is so much money to be made — made immediately, not at some indefinite point in the future — with gaming technology. Folks are willing to shell out real money for this, and then more money for the games themselves.

It will start with giant 3D screens, like that screen Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg push down the Kremlin hallway in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Who wouldn’t want that in their house to go with their Wii Fit or Xbox Kinect games? Then, as prices drop, why not the floor, too, so you can see where you’re stepping?

Pretty soon, it takes over a whole room — which is empty during the day, while the kids are at school, so why not use it for work?

Best of all, we’ll finally have a fully paperless office. After all, having a file cabinet in your holodeck will mess up the immersion. You’ll want it totally empty.

I personally am very much looking forward to this since I’m a social person, and working in isolation is killing me. Plus, I need to get off my butt and move around during the day — sitting behind a computer day in and day out isn’t doing wonders for my butt or my waistline.

I don’t know if my son will actually become an aerospace engineer-slash-hobby dairy farmer. He’ll probably change his mind fifty times before he graduates.

But it’s good to know that it’s a viable option. Maybe five years from now. Maybe ten. Maybe fifteen. But soon enough for it to make an impact on his career choices.

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

4 Responses

  1. Paul Wilson says:

    Many years ago (around 15 I think), I had the opportunity to work on a similar idea, however, it wasn’t about projecting a 3d image, but of having a virtual 3d space that someone in the real world could interact with.

    The system was pretty simple. We had several cameras that recorded the scene. In the image of each camera we could describe a 2D shape and link it with the 2d shapes in the other cameras. By combining the 2D shapes like this it allowed us to describe 3d shapes in the space.

    As we could track changes in the camera image (we literally just checked if there was a change from a static recorded image and the current image from the cameras), we could detect if someone walked into one of the 3d objects. When this occurred we just set off an alarm to let the person know that they had bumped into an object.

    Back then, we didn’t have the computing power to do real time animated 3D objects, to allow a moving camera or project an actual image that a person could see in 3D . It now seems that technology is getting good enough to allow these ideas to come to fruition.

    Have a look at what this guy has done (now a few years old):

  2. Ener Hax says:

    very cool and i love his big dreams! (which i do believe can come true)  =)

  3. There are so many good reasons to think of virtual environments as rich in potential.  They can be healthier and more efficient for workers and lead to unexpected productivity and innovation gains for business owners.  It’s just so hard for workers to give up the traditional social aspects of an office and employers to give up the control that comes from the physical presence of employees.

    Part of the answer will certainly come from technology.  However, there is plenty of room for growth, innovation and rewards from learning new ways of fulfilling social needs, answering control concerns and relieving anxiety about those kinds of internal changes.  Sociologists, psychologists, teachers and parents have important roles to play in the emerging culture of increasing technological infusion.

    Even with advances in technology, we need advances in our culture.  Concepts like “serious games” (games that fulfill purposes other than entertainment) are intriguing because they suggest we are beginning to get past our Puritanical notions that unless one has his nose to a grindstone 16 hours a day, one is not working “hard”.

    By the way, Maria, even in space we are going to need food.  Maybe there will be a need to develop systems whereby cows are genetically engineered to produce milk in low gravity.  I have no doubt there will be many interesting opportunities for your son.  Best wishes!

  4. Gaga says:

    You didn’t mention Haptics Maria. I wrote about Haptics which uses ultra sound to touch and feel virtual holograms. There is a video on the article demonstrating it…