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Why it matters that Microsoft is channeling the Star Trek holodeck

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Instead of measuring innovation in terms of new products or services, maybe it’s time to start measuring innovation in terms of how companies change our perceptions of reality. Before virtual reality and augmented reality, there was simulated reality, immersive virtual reality, mixed reality and artificial reality. All of these iterations of “reality” represented new ways of viewing the world. Now Microsoft Research has introduced “dyadic projected spatial augmented reality” — but you probably know it by another name — the Star Trek holodeck.

You can watch a YouTube video of Microsoft’s new “RoomAlive” in which a room that’s been hooked up with all kinds of cameras, projectors and sensors transforms into a modern-day version of the Star Trek holodeck. 3D images appear out of nowhere. Any surface of the room becomes an interactive surface for game-playing. “Users can touch, shoot, stomp, dodge and steer projected content that seamlessly co-exists with their existing physical environment,” Microsoft said in a statement.

Researchers at Microsoft say “RoomAlive” could offer a better user experience than other forms of virtual reality. In short, there’s the potential for a lot more interaction (both physical and social) than you can experience while wearing a giant VR device strapped to your face. (And, come to think of it, most photos of people using the Oculus Rift do seem to feature people sitting down rather than walking around).

However, what’s really exciting about these new forms of reality is not all the new game-playing experiences they enable – it’s that they could lead to breakthroughs in fields ranging from medicine to education, entertainment to consumer retail.

In entertainment, we’ve already seen how new types of reality are changing the game. There was the famous Tupac Shakur hologram back in 2012, in which the deceased rapper appeared to come back to life at the Coachella music festival in California. And that hologram concept has been successfully used over and over again, most recently with a Michael Jackson moonwalking hologram. It’s not just rappers and pop stars. Even Washington politicians these days are experimenting with holograms.

And holograms could just be the tip of the (virtual) iceberg. Holograms, after all, were the inspiration for the original Star Trek holodeck.

One idea that could catch on is the idea of offering consumers a “try-before-you-buy” virtual reality experience. The same people who enjoy watching product videos and reading all the consumer reviews online might also enjoy using virtual reality to test drive products. Literally. Lexus is now offering an Oculus Rift VR experience for drivers who want to test drive the new Lexus 2015 RC F. It was built using the car’s actual steering column and foot pedals.

In medicine, similar types of virtual reality technologies could be used to simulate patient environments — without all the risks of actually interacting. Theoretically, medical practitioners could learn how to interact with the deadly Ebola virus without having to risk exposure to patients in West Africa. As a very early proof-of-concept, a company might release a virtual reality environment to simulate basic anatomies and pathologies for medical users, and expand on that for specific problems and ailments.

Suddenly, just about anything seems like it could be improved by a little trip to the Star Trek holodeck. In the world of science fiction, holodeck has been used for everything from creating brand new types of travel experiences to rethinking how to train people for warfare. And, inevitably, that means the military is going to start snooping around to see how it might innovate the next generation of warfare. People throwing virtual fireballs at each other in a video game could lead to something with battlefield implications.

Of course, even Microsoft admits that the holodeck is still an experimental concept. Don’t expect a consumer version anytime soon. There are a lot of technological hurdles in modeling reality, and it will be a long time before the holodeck actually gets commercialized. Although, then again, some have tagged the year 2020 as the “holodeck tipping point.”

Just think of all the philosophical implications of building something like the holodeck. It would force people to change their perceptions of the world around them. Is “reality” real? What do we even mean by “reality” any more, by the way? Are we really just living inside a giant 2-D hologram — and, if we are, would we even know it? (Yes, the U.S. Department of Energy is really investigating this troubling question of 2-D holograms.)

That’s why innovations such as the Microsoft holodeck could turn out to represent a bigger innovation than even the most optimistic researchers predict. It’s about more than just creating a cool new gaming platform — it’s about creating the next big platform for just about anything. Medicine. Entertainment. Retail. Sports. You name it. Yes, when it comes to creating new types of reality, things just got real.