More sense, less travel

In the ultimate step toward carbon footprint reduction, families could enjoy exotic holidays in a variety of locations without leaving their homes, simply by stepping into domestic ‘virtual cocoons’.

An ambitious European project dubbed ‘Towards Real Virtuality’ is looking at developing the technology and realising potential applications for this radical concept.

The name gives a clue to the nature of the project, which is being led by Prof David Howard of York University. Howard said many people would read it as ‘virtual reality’.

‘Virtual reality is about your sense of hearing, sight, smell, touch, feel or taste being stimulated exactly as they should be,’ said Howard. ‘It would be difficult to get the bandwidth to simultaneously stimulate all five senses for the immersive experience we’re looking at.

‘We plan to take advantage of what’s known as perceptual trade-offs. If you get people to concentrate on the ball in a piece of film about a basketball match, then a gorilla walks across the screen, most people won’t notice the gorilla.’

Howard explained that the technology could work in a similar way to MP3s, which, to save storage space, remove 90 per cent of the available sound in a way that is almost impossible to detect. It would also employ the concept of cross-modal perception, where, for example, a great deal of the sound signal can be removed because there is a strong video or smell signal.

Using an initial one-year grant, a cross-disciplinary team will examine the technology and applications to put together a full grant proposal. The idea stemmed from an EPSRC workshop called ‘Connecting communities to the digital economy’, which Howard attended with chief investigators Christopher Moir and Prof Alan Chalmers from Warwick University.

Key drivers behind the workshop included the pressure to travel less to reduce carbon output, and the fact that technical means of interacting, such as videoconferencing, are not very effective methods of human interaction. This triggered the idea that all five senses could be engaged in the virtual cocoon.

‘The cocoon idea is important, as it will cocoon one from the local environment,’ said Howard. ‘The environment inside the cocoon is entirely controlled by the cocoon itself to project the notion that you’re somewhere else, with all the sights, sounds, smells, touch and feel of that location.’

Howard admits that a final system is many years away, but the many potential applications have piqued the interest of major players across different industries, including IBM, Arup, Qinetiq and Spheron.

At the industrial level, the building sector could use it in building design to give a sense of what it might be like to sit in a conference hall that has not yet been built. It could also be used to train people to deal with nautical or aerospace emergencies.

The Warwick researchers, however, have a particular interest in using the system to recreate the past. In a fully functioning cocoon, archaeologists could look at prehistoric cave art in its original setting to ascertain how it was painted, and the effects of light, smell and temperature on the cave environment.

Though the impact of cutting down visual and auditory information has been exploited through MP3 and JPEG technology, far less is known about doing the same for the other three senses.

‘There are electronic noses and ways of detecting smells,’ said Howard. ‘Taste is a long way behind, but we could exploit the fact that the main key to taste is smell. For touch, there are kinaesthetic feedback devices, such as those used in gaming controllers, which give you the some sense of real feel.’

Unusually, the project will include an element of public debate that was required by the EPSRC.

‘We want to ask who the users of this kind of technology would be and what is important to them. To encourage people to walk into a virtual box and experience an unreal world is a big step.’

Howard said that wide acceptance would be essential to make the unit cost of such a device affordable, but he can envisage a virtual cocoon room designed into future new-build housing in the same way current developments include features to make them carbon-neutral.