Joachim Breitner's Homepage
Today, I took part in a tour to the Intelligent Sensor-Acuator-Systems (ISAS) department here at the University of Karlsruhe. They work on a project for extended-range telepresence. At first it is like a regular Virtual Realtiy device: Head-mounted display for the 3D view of the world and an acoustic tracking system to record the user's curret position and orientation. While this is a nice toy by itself, the guys from ISAS have developed a system where you can walk through inifinitely large virtual places, including a virtual museum, a pacman game and our cafeteria, rendered by quake, and still stay in the 5x5m room at the university.
This works by bending the space, at least the space you percieve: The computer calculates a path that resembles the path you want to go with regard to length and turns, but bends it a barely noticeable bit, thus guiding you in circles around in that room. This guiding is done by shifting the view on the display, making you counter-act that shift and thus turning. A bit like dizziness, when you think you tip over and you move the other way.
This works pretty well, at least for movement at regular speed and not too many unpredictable turns - the less predictable the path you take in the virtual world, the less optimal is the path you will take in the real room, thus having stronger and more noticable bends.
To me, this seems to be the first step to a world like the one Tad Williams describes in his "Otherland"-Series. Together with what promising but also threatening advances are made on the neurological front, e.g. retina prothesises, "real" virtual reality for mass comsumption is not so far away. And even more improvements in the human-device-interface field have been made: Remote control of human movement by stimulation of the equilibrium sense was sucessfully tried in Japan (German link).