To kickstart our maglev-train-of-thought editorial pieces titled ‘Dreams our stuff is made of’, this week’s DOSIMO is a full-height, intelligent movement-tracking, human hamster-ball. [Ed: I made him to say ‘human hamster ball’ because it just sounds worrying if you say ‘human-ball’]. This would be the mother-of-all PEAs and finally round off the sense of presence, allowing you to move freely and with a natural gait. We’d call it The Humster [Ed: I see what you did there]. And we would like this technological marvel in our stocking for Christmas 2020, if you can hurry it along, thankyouplease.
So what’s the big idea?
OK, so letting you run amok across Skyrim is proving a little difficult, given you’re standing in your living room with many real-life obstacles underfoot. Current solutions have you tethered inside a treadmill of some kind with a moving floor that either goes in only one direction or has a distinctly ungainly (and non-natural) walking gait. It’s not that they are bad efforts, they’re not, it’s amazing they have come so far already. It’s just that we know where we want to be and it’s not there yet. Attempts to solve the problems of simulated movement have been going on for years, but they have all fallen short of the mark. Treadmills, conveyor belts, plastic hamster balls on rollers, slow-friction mats.. they are truly valiant efforts and on the shoulders of such luminary giants do our dreams dare to tread – but, hey, they all failed. In most cases this was simply because you didn’t have a realistic sense of freedom and in the worst cases because you were certain to end up on your arse (think of the hamster). Realistically, the road-map for current limited-mobility solutions is going to feel like a really good VR arcade experience, at best. At worst: concussions, contusions, confusion and confucius say ‘cat not lol now, eh?’.
So where do we want to be?
We want to run and jump and laugh and sing and [Ed: reign it in!]. Well, we want to be free, to do what we want to do. Free from the harnesses of the treadmills, free from the fear of stamping on the cat or running into mum. We want to feel like we are actually moving around a large open space and not sliding our feet around a mat or running along a rail. The ideal solution for normal, terrestrial perambulation would be a giant humster ball. One which had no weight to carry it’s own momentum; since, in real life, the ground you run across stops moving as you do. The only thing you should be aware of is your own momentum and the effort it takes to get that moving. This is something we become VERY familiar with in our first year of life, so it is upsetting when your environment doesn’t respond the way you are used to all of a sudden. The resistance of the ball should provide you the natural feedback: that you are pushing the ground behind you, or away from you in the case of a jump (obviously, gaining height would always be a problem). As your weight lands back on the ball, it should provide exactly the amount of resistance in the right direction to indicate to your motor neurons/stretch receptors that you are decelerating and you either continue applying effort, or the ball rolls to a stop.
So what would we need?
The ball itself would have to be as light as possible, with a surface that was electromagnetically interactive, so it could be manipulated by a control box at the base. The new miracle-material, Graphene seems like a good candidate. Because Graphene. Although perhaps just a plastic ball covered in foil would suffice. Graphene sounds cooler, though. Personally I just want to say “yeah, so I’ve got a 10ft Buckyball in my lounge where I kill dragons ‘n stuff”. Epic woah. [Ed: that sounds like a lot of pencils]
Here are some basic outlines of the idea:
- Very strong, to withstand lumbering oafs
- Very light graphene ball, to reduce inertia (a 10 ft sphere strong enough to withstand pummeling feet and frantic leaping would still weigh in at less than a kilo)
- Electromagnetically interactive, to be manipulated by the large electromagnet at the base
- I’m guessing you’d probably need a grid of other conductive strips to allow separate layers of interaction, i.e. direction control (assuming the angular momentum of the field around the ball couldn’t be used directly).
- Electro-magnetically resistive to rolling relative to the user’s body-weight, which could be calculated as they get in.
- Direction-specific resistance to emulate inclines
- Controller box senses ball movement and pressure from player motion and allows ball to move accordingly – increasing or decreasing resistance in rotation along axis of the applied kinetic energy.
- Human effort in raising ball momentum can be used to charge headset and devices wirelessly
- Buried in floor, 4-feet below, 6-feet above – floats on electromagnet cushion
It seems to me that you could create this to reuse the energy imparted by the player to charge the unit itself and with wireless charging on the horizon, there wouldn’t be any need for wires to connect the users to the processor running the experience (it may even be built into the headset itself). Now obviously, this kind of technology is a little way off. I’m not even sure if there aren’t any conflicting properties listed above (i.e. ones that would theoretically make this an impossibility to produce), but in principle it sounds like wicked fun and would also mean you didn’t have to take the dog for a walk on rainy days.
Someone needs to make a big metal hamster ball that can be controlled to react exactly like the floor does when you run, walk, strafe or jump. The resistance is computer-controlled and keyed to your weight. It would take some learning (on both sides) but think of the possibilities!