Coming to a headset near you, a chance to walk among ‘ghosts’

Call it holoportation. Call it telepresence. Call it the Zoom of tomorrow or the Star Wars Jedi council room of today, but one man who has experienced it insists that beaming digital versions of ourselves around the world is now very real and very thrilling.

“The first time I saw a realistic avatar beamed into my physical space,” says Prof Jeremy Bailenson, “and his feet were on the floor and his eyes followed my gaze as I walked around the room, my jaw dropped. I said: ‘This is it’.”

Bailenson runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. “My job is to build things that are extremely, intensely expensive and difficult to pull off from an engineering standpoint, so that we can see what the world is going to be like in 10 years.”

When he saw holoportation in action, “we stopped everything [else]. When a person is beamed into your room, it’s a special experience. When you get a demo of it, it’s mind blowing.”

Mind blowing or not, the essence of holoportation is simple: a digital representation of your body projected into a physical space elsewhere, allowing you to, say, attend a party on the other side of the world without leaving your living room. It requires one bit of kit to “capture” a person and their movements in three dimensions. At the other end it requires a system – usually goggles or specialised glasses – to project that avatar into a real space.

Avatars in this augmented reality can interact not only with real people in that space, but also with each other, allowing virtual partygoers to beam in from around the world and recreate the nuances of real-world interactions.

Bailenson and his team say holoportation can work in a way that is realistic, responsive and mobile, using cameras and goggles commercially available from Microsoft. They hope others use their system so it becomes “a building block for ongoing development of applications for AR headsets, in particular, telepresence systems”.

Founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab Jeremy Bailenson says seeing somebody beamed into your living room is a 'special experience'

Credit: Jemal Countess /Getty Images

The holy grail

Others, no doubt, are furiously working on the tech – estimates suggest almost a fifth of Facebook’s 58,000 employees are working in its Reality Labs division on AR and virtual reality.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said this month: “The holy grail of social experiences is the ability to feel like you’re present with another person. Nothing that we have in technology today gets close to that.” Bailenson adds: “Apple too, we know, has thousands working on AR. These companies are making huge bets.”

They are not the first. Microsoft spent much of the last decade trying to crack the AR market and get players ever more immersed in computer games. But it proved a commercial flop, leaving just the legacy bits of kit Bailenson uses for his experiments. Google weighed in with Google Glass headsets, but sales disappointed and general sales were discontinued. But like Microsoft, Google has not abandoned the technology; it is biding its time until that mass market moment.

Back in 2013 Google co-founder Sergey Brin sported a Google Glass headset, but it failed to catch on

Credit: Jeff Chiu /AP

Bailenson does not doubt such a moment is coming, but right now the costs are too high. A HoloLens 2 costs £2,500. Competition will drive prices down, and weight and battery life are also issues, but these are all solvable. The key issue, he thinks, is field of view, which with today’s kit is proving hard to widen. Instead of taking in a person in a single glance, as in real life, taking in an avatar means looking them up and down. “If something is outside (such as an avatar’s arm or leg), it is simply cut off, says Bailenson, “which means that the illusion is broken.”

If the technology comes to fruition as he expects, we will have to make significant social adjustments. Just as it is common to see people in barely-visible headphones talking to distant interlocutors, so tomorrow people in barely visible glasses might see realistic 3D interlocutors walking and talking next to them but invisible to the rest of us.

The HoloLens 2 is an impressive headset, but future iterations of virtual reality technology could be smaller and much less expensive

Credit: Jason Alden /Bloomberg

“You’re seeing an apparition – it could be your best friend, it could be Amazon’s Alexa having a conversation with you about what’s going on in your house.” Everyone, including lawyers and politicians, he says, is “totally unprepared” for this radical shift of “walking among ghosts”.

Yet bit by bit, those ghosts may become flesh, or take on that quality. Already, Bailenson “has a couple of devices that do haptic feedback” so avatars can feel the sensation of, for example, shaking hands. Does he want to replace face to face human interactions? He is clear. “Absolutely not.”

But then his 2D avatar on my screen nods in excitement from California: “Think about what the world’s going to be like when people are literally walking around the streets of London, and they’re seeing ghosts…”

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