Since the first primitive "virtual reality" systems were created in the 1990's,
Humans have advanced hugely in their ability to recreate the sights and sounds of a real environments within an artificial setting. The early VR environments could by no means be called realistic, but by the mid twenty first century computers had advanced to the point where VR systems had gone into common use both in entertainment and many other more serious applications. VR technology was virtually abandoned in the aftermath of World War III, and no serious efforts to persue simulated environments was made again until near the end of the twenty first century.
The major stumbling block to Virtual Reality as it existed at this time was physical - no matter how good the computer because at projecting images, sounds, and suchlike to the user, he or she was not actually in a real environment. Although body suits capable of simulating tactile impressions had come into use again by 2120, these where never considered a serious substitute for actually handling real physical objects.
What was needed was a way to physically recreate an environment which the user could then interact with freely. This did not become possible until the invention of the replicator unit in 2315; based on transporter technology, the replicator allowed actual objects to be created in an instant and deleted as needed. The first "holochambers" energed in 2328; they used a small room equipped with a set of holographic projectors which could generate a realistic image of an outdoors scene onto the walls and ceiling. A replicator would then materialise objects within the room to go with the image - plants and trees, for example.
The users where then free to pick up and use the objects without having to wear any kind of projection equipment themselves. Early holochambers suffered from several limitations; a careless user could easily walk into a wall, for example, and if several users where in one chamber then they could only be as far away from each other as the size of the chamber allowed. The major limitation was in the creation of characters within the holochamber; although reasonably realistic images of people and animals could be projected, users could not physically touch these characters in any way. More recent models have largely overcome these problems; a modern holochamber projects a forcefield across the floor of the chamber, and should a user walk towards the wall this field begins to act as a 'treadmill' to keep the person stationary; the computer automatically moves the replicated objects within the holochamber and adjusts the holographic projections to simulate the movement the user should experience. Replicated objects reaching the wall are dematerialized, while images of objects reaching the space within the chamber are replicated for real. The second hurdle was overcome by 'internal partitioning' of the chamber.
Should two people enter a holochamber and walk in directly opposite directions, they would previously only be able to go so far before reaching the walls. While the 'treadmill' effect can convince a user that the environment is passing them, it cannot make the users continue to move further away from each other and so the illusion would be broken. In modern holochambers, the computer would sense that this was about to happen and throw up an internal divide; halfway across the holochamber the computer would throw up a hologram showing each user an image of the other, continuing to move further away - essentially this process creates two minature holochambers within one. Should the users head back towards each other the computer would reverse the process, merging the two into one again.
A modern holochamber is capable of sub-dividing into many separate environments, allowing groups of people to wander around independantly of each other. Perhaps the most impressive advance in holochamber technology has been the advent of 'holomatter'. This is solid matter created within the holochamber energy grid and manipulated by highly articulated computer driven tractor beams; although early efforts where crude, modern holochambers can use holomatter to create and animate totally realistic characters within the chamber. The basic mechanism behind the holochamber is the omni-directional holo-diode (OHD).
The OHD is a small unit (several hundred million per square metre in modern holochambers) which is capable of projecting both full colour stereoscopic images and three dimensional forcefields. The OHD's are circuit-printed onto large sheets, which are then subdivided into tiles of 0.61 square metres. A typical starfleet Holodeck wall consists of twelve subprocessing layers totalling 3.5 mm thickness, diffusion bonded to a lightweight cooling tile. The panel is controlled by an optical data network similar to that used for standard panel displays. Dedicated subsections of the main computer system drive the holodeck, and it is the memory and speed of these computers which determines the number and complexity of the holodeck programmes available.
Although modern holochambers are often touted
as being just as good as the real thing, in practice there are still
limitations. Even the best holochamber can only subdivide into a maximum
of twelve separate environments, and many holochamber programmes are
not complex enough to make full use of the holochambers technical capabilities.
Perhaps the biggest limitation is in the holomatter itself; this is
only stable within the energy grid, and looses cohesion almost instantly
if removed from the holochamber. Holochambers come in various sizes
and types; the federation is reputed to have the best models, with Earth
boasting some of the largest known holochambers.
Holography is perhaps
one of Starfleet's most versitile achievments.
Holodecks work on four major principles of presentation:
Holograms and force beams, under normal circumstances, cannot be taken out of the holodeck, as they are projected in that room. Replicated matter, as actual matter, can be taken off. (That way, the lunch you eat on the Holodeck won't dissolve when you leave the holodeck.) Holomatter cannot be contained outside the confines of the holodeck, unless it is contained in an energy field. Otherwise, the holomatter would degrade back into energy.
The holodeck's computer works quickly, and can thusly change objects between presentations, seemlessly adapting as the user interacts. An example would be as such:
You walk up to it (presently a hologram) and sit on the counter (suddenly a force beam).
You grab your muffin (now a replication) and eat it.
The user would never have known that the muffin was once in fact a hologram.
The holodeck, however, is only so big. So how does the user not run into the wall when going for the muffin? The holodeck has a force field tredmill and can control other such affects as gravity, giving you the sensation you are walking, say, right off a cliff and into free-fall. This, naturally, is not suggested without safety parameters on-line.
Evidently, one would next address the issue of safety. Holograms, being simply light, are not concrete and would unlikely ever harm you. For force beams and holodeck matter, safety parameters in the Holodeck's computer keep you out of harm's way. As for replicated material, you'd may as well be ordering from the replicator in your quarters. You are just as likely to feel ill from drinking bad apple juice on the Holodeck as you are anywhere. Likewise, a shattered glass could be as leathal a weapon. The latter case, however, seems unlikely to happen, as the Holodeck could just as easily use a force beam of a glass to contain your apple juice.
It should be noted that safety parameters can be turned off. Just ask any on-duty medical officer if he or she's ever received a patient from a mountain-climbing excursion gone wrong.
One may also ask how more than one person can manage to be in more than one place in the simulation at the same time. In this case, a virtual wall is placed between the two users, so that they don't see each other. This has no effect to the users as far as they can tell, because the new wall shows the missing piece of scenery, and the loss of space is accounted for with simply more scrolling of the tredmill.
Newer technology has allowed for holography to be no longer contained to the holodeck. The Intrepid and Sovereign class ships are equipped with holo-emmiters in their sickbays, and the U.S.S. Prometheus has emitters on every deck. Further still, Starfleet Scientific Command has been informed that the U.S.S. Voyager has in its posession 29th-century technology which allows its Emergency Medical Hologram to wander freely.