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Programmable Claytronics make the Holodeck Real

March 4, 2007 | John Serrao

Well, maybe the holodeck is still a stretch, but it's getting much closer to reality. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have created programmable matter that can take any form, including that of a human being. Known technically as dynamic physical renderings, these 3D holograms are composed of nano-sized reconfigurable claytronic atoms or catoms. Billions of catoms get conducted into a symphony of rhythmic motion, say that of a smile, by numbingly complex software.

Catoms Simply

The catoms can be aligned to create any shape imaginable, in theory. In reality, the technology remains at a point where a smile is still a laughable proposition (my apologies to Phill Robb). Researchers are still hoping to create the first real life catoms but they have achieved some success in getting catom-like objects to 'wiggle' in a laboratory setting.

A wiggling catom (not so small just yet):

Catoms Simply

What the catoms will really do someday:

Catoms in 3D model

The two leaders of this project, Todd Mowry and Seth Goldstein (associate professors of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University) laid out their vision with terminology that will strike a cord with frequent HPL readers - a 'telepresence'. They describe a telepresence as a 3D duplicated version of a person that would have the ability to replace traditional conferencing by placing all meeting participants in the same virtual environment.

The first realization of this idea has been in a fully virtual space - Second Life. A PR-plug by PR firm Text 100 explains the commercial benefits of this technology in this solid YouTube short:

The next milestone in this project is to create a 3D fax machine (.pdf link!). The limitless possibilities of the project have also attracted a bevy of public and private investment, namely that of the National Science Foundation, Computing Research Association, DARPA and tech-bellwether Intel.

For those of you who are a little lower on the nerd ladder than your friends at the lab, a holodeck is a fictitious virtual reality room from the world of Star Trek where re-programmable matter, aligned by tractor beams and force fields, takes on the look of the real world when overlaid by holographic images. Taking this a step 'closer' to reality, the Star Trek Encyclopedia II states that "holodeck matter is a partially stable form of matter, created by transporter-based replicators, for use in holographic simulations." To see the most interactive holodeck in 'existence', check out the one that has been built in Second Life (where the present limitations of catom tech are not so apparent):

In essence, the holodeck is the realization of catom technology or, at the very least, the general direction such a technology is advancing towards.

John's Analysis:

How do catoms, programmable matter, the holodeck we all want to try out and telepresence relate to each other (not a bad question, honestly)? Catoms fall somewhere in the chasm between the of fantasy Star Trek/Second Life and the reality of modern telepresence solutions. The birth of commercial telepresence came out of a need for more effective visual collaboration without the burdens of actually having to travel the physical distance. The natural evolution of real-world collaboration technologies further moves our world towards the still fictitious collaborative ideas presented by the holodecks in Star Trek and Second Life.

Once you move beyond the fantasy of Star Trek 70s-80s-era's tractor beams, you will see the 21st century catom is essentially the foundation of the mythical holodeck. This logically places the research by Mowry and Goldstein into the feasability of catoms and programmable matter as the first step in making taking this science fiction fantasy into reality. As these interactive collaboration technologies like catoms, multi-layer LCDs and 3D images without holograms fall to realistic price points, they will get integrated into 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation telepresence environments not as odd science fiction fantasies but rather as business necessities.

For more information on this project and the technology associated with it, check out these sites:

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