Return to
Main Menu
The methods described in pages are a theoretical discussion ONLY. Methods are discussed in only the broadest terms and I hold no qualifications in the fields discussed.
Because a method is listed here does not indicate that I approve or recommend it. In some cases, I definitely don't!

Wow, has this subject come a long way in the ten years since I wrote the first version of this site. We're still a little short of the Star Trek holodeck experience, but given the advances in technology in just one decade, who knows what might be just around the corner.

To virtually simulate an experience, either recorded or interactive, you need two things. First, you need to be able to run a simulation, which would be a computer-generated world or a complete sensory experience somehow recorded from life. Secondly, you need a way to perceive this experience, as immersively as possible, and hopefully feedback to it. Input-output in other words.

The first step has already been realised, at least in crude form. There are already fully-realised three-dimensional virtual worlds that you can visit in the form of an avatar: a computerised representation of you that has no need to resemble your current physical form in any way. Right here, today, and for very little money, you can become a horse in a virtual world that can trot, gallop, jump, rear, and neigh. Interested? I'm referring to Linden Lab's hugely popular Second Life. Purchase the right avatar and a few mods and you'll be able to do almost anything a real horse can do. And yes, I do mean anything!

Click for Second Life
information and teleport.
Though Second Life and its cousins are a far cry from a real-life experience at the current time, bear in mind that most of them have been running for less than a decade and are extremely impressive for that. They're constantly developing too, so things can only get better.

So the worlds are there, and so are the equine avatars to live in them. How do we participate in them?

Well, at the moment we're mostly confined to the usual video-game experience: output is via a screen, and input is largely still via mouse and keyboard. Happily, this is an area of research that sees immense investment as the potential profits (ie, the gaming market) are vast: look at the way video-game controls have evolved since the Nintendo Wii made its debut: Microsoft's new XBox control system, Kinect, offers complete motion-tracking and voice control without the need for any hand-held device at all.

Some amazing developments are occurring in the medical world to aid people who have lost or never had one or more of their natural senses. The brain is a remarkably adaptable organ and can be reprogrammed to make sense of different stimuli, so that a blind person may wear a camera and a processing unit that by various means transmits its signals to the brain. It may be linked to the retina, the optic nerve, or the visual cortex itself. Similar devices utilising microphones are available for those with impaired hearing. The same technology can obviously be adapted to provide sensory stimulus from an artificial environment. The brain is sensitive to electrical impulses: it uses them itself, so crudely speaking, interfacing an electronic device to an organic brain is not by any means impossible. Brain Entrainment involves using low frequency sounds in sinc with the brain's natural frequency domains to alter thinking states, and could potentially be used to influence perception

Ultimately, I suppose, what we're looking for is one of those nice "neural jacks" popular in much sci-fi at the moment: your computer simply plugs into a socket implanted behind your skull, and presto: the computer input somehow overrides your organic senses and muscular output and substitutes its own sensory input, taking your motor impulses as instructions. Sadly, I don't think we're going to be picking up Microsoft Cortical Interfaces (Kortex? Grin!) off the shelf at PCWorld any time soon. Perhaps a more realistic halfway solution would be to use some form of sensory deprivation (a dark, sound-proof room or even a float tank) to eliminate real-world input, and use various means to provide substituted VR information. Of course, the real biggie where artificial sensory information is concerned is haptics: the sense of touch. Crude haptic devices do exist: you can purchase a haptic joystick that offers variable touch-feedback from a game according to the relative hardness of what you touch, for example. But full-body sensory feedback? Now we're back to science fiction again.

An alternative route, though it would be strictly passive (ie, non-interactive), would be a process by which a normal horse was fitted (non-intrusively, I hope!) with a device to record, at very high resolution, brain activity; especially that concerned with sensory input. We have a fairly good idea which bits of the brain handle what information. If this could be recorded and somehow "played back" to a human using a reciprocal device (thanks to Casandra for this). Imagine a riding-school horse being fitted with such a recorder for the duration of a lesson. Everything the horse experiences is recorded for an hour, and then the record can be re-experienced by a human. You'd have no option to change the horse's actions though, which could be disconcerting. Imagine the horse jumps a pole and fails to clear it: you'd have no choice but to also knock it down. Suppose the horse, deservedly or not, is disciplined by its rider? You'd have no option to avoid the behaviour that initiated that punishment, and no way to avoid feeling the punishment either!

Wikipedia Entry on Virtual Reality. See also Telepresence.
Second Life Your gateway to the virtual world created by Linden Labs.
XStreet An on-line store where you can browse for avatars and other stuff for Second Life.
Brain Entrainment Using sympathetic sound frequencies to stimulate brain response (thanks to Casandra for this).

Back to Science menu Back to Methods & Advice menu