Despite improvements in telepresence, most virtual “traveling” amounts to little more than staring at a screen and listening to headphones. In an effort to provide a more immersive sensory experience, the Ikei Laboratory at the Tokyo Metropolitan University Graduate School of System Design is developing what it calls “virtual body technology.” Unveiled at the Digital Contents Expo 2012 in Tokyo last October, the system claims to use all five senses to provide a virtual experience akin to inhabiting another person’s body.
The system is more virtual puppeteer than virtual reality with the user passively experiencing the pre-defined stimul – hence the creators likening the system to inhabiting someone else's body. But providing someone with a virtual body still requires more than just putting on a helmet with stereo displays inside. It means being able to smell, feel the wind and have the sensation of walking on the ground. That means a very elaborate rig.
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Ikei Laboratory’s system consists of a 3D monitor, headphones, a fan for breezes and odors, a chair that leans back and forth and vibrates, and foot pedals to provide a sensation of walking and running. How taste enters into the experience remains unclear.
"The chair will move to provide directional and vestibular sensations,” said Professor Yasushi Ikei. “The legs will move to create a sense of actually walking or running and a sense of moving in parallel or up and down, or to create a sensation as if the feet are touching the ground. Extremely large vibrations are felt when you are running, so it is possible to create vibrations from the shins to the knees. When you walk in the city there are various scents and breezes, and these are also recreated."
The setup isn't likely to appeal to control freaks who might be uncomfortable with the lack of user input. But Ikei Laboratory is developing the system with aging users in mind, who might want to travel, but are no longer able to do so.
The system can be seen in action in the video below.