Digital Out of Body Experiences

Ever get crazy ideas about the future of technology? I was pondering some of the new technology that different groups/companies are working on, and had a crazy thought about the future of computer interfaces. It all started with thinking about computers in the 1990s. For those that remember the 1990s, there was something magical about the computers that were coming out then. It was like the displays suddenly leapt well beyond what we saw even in Science Fiction movies. I mean, you could get a decent desktop computer that looked fancier than anything on Star Wars or Star Trek, and they could play CDs, store files (remember having to save everything on a disc? How quaint), connect to other people, play rough videos, etc. You didn’t see a whole lot of that in the movies.

Today we have people working on amazing stuff. Sensors that follow your moves well enough to let you play video games. Using WiFi to see through walls. Immersive heads-up displays. We see some cool stuff in movies today, but I wonder if reality will actually move beyond our current Sci-Fi paradigms of future interfaces into something totally different.

As we increase the ability to quickly detect and map the immediate world around us through cameras, sensors, WiFi signals, sounds, etc – we will soon have the ability to create a photo-realistic digital 3-D recreation in real time. Which sounds cool in itself for, say, recording important events and then re-living them later. Throw those recordings into an immersive Occulus Rift-like helmet and its like you are back there again. But what if you had the helmet on while recording? Since your sensors probably extend a good 100 feet or more, you could realistically “pull away” and rotate the display from your body the same way you spread your fingers across a map on a smart phone to pull out. What this means is that we will probably see the ability to have realistic digital out of body experiences in our life time.

Sounds creepy, but also think of the safety implications. What if you drove this way, and since you can pull back and see around corners, you get in less accidents? You could even start driving your car like a video game with a video game joystick. Same could go for fighter pilots in battle – think of the advantage you could have to see the whole battlefield like a realistic game. Also, imagine public safety – the ability to look through a building for a bomb threat without stepping a foot inside, for instance.

Of course, there are huge privacy concerns with this idea. Would we have to invent a new paint and window films that can block these technologies in order to secure not only government buildings but our own houses? I am sure some solution will present itself.

Of course, we don’t always have to go big. Doctors could use this technology to guide miniature robots all over the human body, or even perform routine work on contagious patients from a safe distance.

Of course, I have been talking about co-located events here, but since we are talking about transferring digital information to a display, that display could technically be anywhere in the world and this “out of body” experience could be transferred over the Internet. Educationally, think of the ways we could change teaching if we could send learners anywhere we want with little physical danger. Historical sites could set up tours online – just create a protocol for streaming your sensors online and people could go all over the place in the middle of class. And not just international trips that are cost-prohibitive in real life – also think trips that are dangerous like inside a volcano or hurricane or to the bottom of the ocean.

Of course, all of this is kind of akin to floating around someplace like a digital ghost that no one can see – which is good in some situations, but not others. But what if we can combine these sensors with holographic projectors to project the virtual visitor as if they were actually there? Collaboration pretty much reaches the level of holodecks. What will that mean for classes when we have this ability? What could we learn about ourselves if we have the ability to re-watch ourselves later from an outsider’s perspective? For all of the fields that involve interaction, what would that mean to be able to replay a whole interaction? What would this mean for role play?

Its kind of creepy and interesting at the same time. But then again, back in the 90s, the idea of sharing personal pictures and personal random thoughts on Facebook was creepy and interesting also. We will see where all of this goes, but I hope people that are working on these technologies are dreaming big enough to work through the creepy and into the interesting.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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