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Dude, Where's My Fembot?

February 5, 2008 | Chris Payatagool

By Tim Nichols

Holodeck.jpgI was a child of the 60's and 70's, reared on the pulp sci-fi promise of a near future that contained flying cars, vacations on Mars, personal jet packs, and oh yeah... fembots.  Well, probably mandroids too, but as a teenage boy I had a lot less interest in those.  Yet here it is, the 21st century, the near future of my childhood, and my own sons are now facing the daunting prospect of having to date real flesh-and-blood non-programmable girls.  Oh, the humanity!

Or maybe it's not so bad after all.  If you think about it, most fictional fembots turned out to be sexy, gorgeous, and uncontrollably evil.  It all started with Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, where the sadistic Maria robot used seduction to incite a revolution.



Modern fiction doesn't offer a much rosier vision.  Sure, The Stepford Wives were a bright spot, but Westworld/Futureworld, Blade Runner, Terminator 3, Star trek Voyager, and even the new Battlestar Gallactica all brought us alluring yet violently death inducing robots in female form.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who was hoping that the reimagining of Battlestar would involve Number Six saying, "By your command."  But it just wasn't in the cards.

If you think it through, fembots have to be a bad idea.  First, there's the whole software problem.  Sure, in theory it's all finite state automata, but in practicality every software system is prone to unpredictable outputs (sometimes known as "undocumented features").  Further, as guys, we are genetically predisposed to making women wish us dead on occasion.  Giving them ready means to act on that impulse would be just plain stupid.

Does this mean that nerdy introverts are doomed to be alone?  Condemned to suffer the indignities of a life devoid of human contact?  Fear not, my geeky friends.  Technology may have failed to deliver us fembots, but immersive social technologies are maturing now that will allow us to have colleagues, family, friends, and lovers close without ever leaving home.  Ahhhh, the humanity.

Collectively, these technologies are bucketed under the term telepresence.  They allow you to feel as if you were in a remote location.  The telephone was arguably the first telepresence device.  It allowed you to share your voice at a distance.  However, it takes quite a lot of imagination to really feel as if you are co-located with someone over a phone line.  Video phones and video conferencing were the next steps.  However, the need for specialized equipment, bandwidth problems, and the logistics of managing the camera combined to keep this capability from ever really catching on.

The Internet finally arose as the first practical backbone to support telepresence.  Chat rooms, webcams, and IM tools for file and screen sharing all earned acceptance as an easy way to feel connected to others.  This spawned the Web 2.0 revolution typified by MySpace, Flickr, Facebook, and other sites where you can easily share different aspects of your life and yourself with others.  However, while the sharing aspects of these technologies are excellent, there really isn't a true notion of being with the other person.  You might say, Web 2.0 is heavy on the "tele", but weak on the "presence".  (Okay, you're right.  You probably wouldn't say that... but I might.  In fact, I just did!)

More recently, MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds (VWs) have emerged as an additional telepresence vector.  These have changed the game a bit.  Now, rather than trying to project yourself into someone else's office, conference room, or living room, you are both projecting yourselves into a neutral third location.  Psychologically, this is a compelling mind trick which creates a completely different experience than IM can offer.  If I'm glimpsing you and part of your house over your webcam, there's at best a voyeuristic thrill to it.  I can see the remote space, but there isn't a viable mental construct to allow me to project into that space.  But avatar based environments provide exactly that.  For a while at least, I can be the 3D character I've created.  I can project into the avatar, see what he sees, and more importantly, feel what he feels.

If you've never experienced this, it has to sound strange.  But spend some time in a virtual world and you will begin find your avatar is an emotional extension of yourself.  You'll wince when he walks into a wall.  You'll feel comfort from a virtual hug.  And you'll be embarrassed if he does something socially awkward.  (This is an added bonus for my fellow nerds.  Now you can be socially awkward in two worlds.)  There's an interesting transition I see almost universally with new VW users.  At first, they refer to their avatar in the third person.  But as this emotional projection grows, the avatar transitions to first person.  It becomes an extension of self.

guncat.jpgYes, yes, I know.  You read somewhere or saw someone in a VW who depicted themselves as a gun-toting cat, a wolf, Samurai, green alien, troll, or elf.  Isn't that just fantasy?  I think yes and no.  There is an element of fantasy to it.  However, personalities are complex.  Most of these "abnormal" manifestations are merely people expressing or exploring slices of their personality.  This may well be very different behavior from what their co-workers see in the office, but that doesn't make it a less truthful (and even healthy) projection of their self.   It's also important to understand that fantasy avatars are over-represented in VWs right now.  Gamers (who often embrace fantasy) were the early adopters of this space, but they are not the majority of the population.  A quick trip through MySpace will demonstrate that the bulk of the population is ready and willing to be "real" online.  The expectation is that as the mainstream enters VWs, they will largely be themselves there as well.  Doubtless a few pounds lighter and with better hair, but basically themselves.

The reality of being virtual is that the mental projection trick goes hand-in-hand with a person's tendency to be able to think abstractly.  Unfortunately, over 70% of the population tends toward being concrete thinkers, and they have a lot more trouble projecting into a character on the screen.  To overcome this, we need to make the user and the character one and the same.  This requires true sensory immersion.  And that requires some cool new technology.

Visual immersion is perhaps the most vital for humans as we capture so much sensation through our eyes.  Large screen HD displays certainly enhance the experience and even create a sort of IMAX sensation.  The television show CSI: NY recently featured Second Life in an episode.  Detective Mac Taylor chased suspects through the SL Grid by playing in front of a full wall display.  Very cool.  But mostly, evidence that the NYC police department has a way too generous technology budget.



CSI:NY in Second Life

LINK:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfXb6zb6Upc

More interesting things are coming though.  Several innovative types of 3D display glasses provide more of a true in-the-space feeling without taking up a whole wall in the family room or using up the kids' college fund.  There are still some registration issues which can cause headaches in some users, but for short term use, the experience is very visually consuming.  3D displays that operate without goofy looking glasses are also on the visible horizon.

Other senses are coming into play as well.  Second Life has already introduced 3D sound such that conversations and noises are heard with spatial correctness in your stereo headphones.  At least so they tell me.  I recently lost my hearing in one ear, so this effect is a bit lost on me.  But others tell me they can really get a sense of where in space the person who's talking to them is located.

ShapeHandPlus_front_back_02.jpgAnd that's really only half of the haptic story.  To truly get immersive experiences, it's not enough to just have your motion as input, you need force feedback.  Sure, your Playstation controller vibrates at you when you crash your car into a wall.  But real control requires real-world feedback.  You need to feel the forces of the turn.  Feel the tires losing grip in the steering wheel and in the driver's seat.  But specialized simulators that provide this sort of feedback cost millions.  The key is to peel the problem back a level.  The goal is not so much to provide these real-world sensations to equipment and furniture,  The end goal is to provide those sensations to your nervous system, largely through your skin.

To date, the most advanced work in this areas has gone into wired gloves or data gloves that provide tactile sensation for the hand.  There are also attempts to make full force feedback body suits, but these are still very expensive and generally not too comfortable to wear.  But this is an area poised for explosive growth.

In other sensory fronts, we find smell and taste are not getting much attention.  This could be because outside the Food Network, most people consider not smelling and tasting the fictional environments they are in to be a good thing.  Moreover, the world still hasn't forgiven Hollywood for the 1960 release of Scent of Mystery.  The (thankfully) only movie ever to be produced in Smell-O-Vision.

Nonetheless, three out of five senses ain't bad.  It's clear that within the next 5-10 years, we'll see the emergence of some pretty compelling and immersive interfaces combining sight, sound, and touch.  The result will revolutionize the way we interact, not only with each other, but for our entertainment.  Distance relationships and separated families become easier to keep close.  The ability to foster "real" friendships with remote people who share your interests becomes viable.  You'll even be able to experience, rather than just watch, your favorite TV show, documentary, or even the news (would that be a good thing?).

So while technology may have failed to produce the fembot of my childhood dreams, I'm willing to settle for a holodeck in my house.   I can't wait to walk into my living room and say, "Computer. Arch."  And if that works, I'll see if the replicator is online by saying, "Beer, Labatt Blue, cold."

[via A Thousand Nerds]








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