CMU center's latest venture imaginable

| Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009

Electronic sliding doors and cell phones have existed since the 1960s -- on a TV show called "Star Trek."

What is introduced as science fiction frequently becomes part of daily life, said James F. Burke Jr., deputy chief technology officer based in Philadelphia for Lockheed Martin Corp.

"Entertainment often envisions where we can go," he said.

Star Trek's second series, "The Next Generation" in 1987, introduced another technology that executives of Lockheed Martin Corp. hope someday to replicate -- the holodeck. The computer-controlled room on the starship Enterprise could simulate virtually any environment by voice command.

Lockheed Martin has taken the first step at making the holodeck a reality by awarding a 12-month, $650,000 grant to Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, said Burke.

"Talking about the holodeck shows what we're aspiring to," said Don Marinelli, executive producer of the CMU center. "I get tingles even thinking about it."

Lockheed Martin's support for the project has allowed Marinelli to assemble his largest one-project team ever -- 19 people, he said.

Marinelli is the first to concede that what he, his colleagues and graduate students produce a year from now won't duplicate the holodeck. For example, they won't be able to manipulate matter in such a way to make objects like swords or couches appear out of nothing.

"But we want to involve as many of the senses as possible to allow for ease of interaction," Marinelli said.

Touch screens will provide people using the technology a variety of data that will help solve whatever the problems are before them, Marinelli said.

Those touch screens, for instance, could provide objects' infrared signatures or magnetic fields, which could point toward a solution to a hypothetical challenge, Marinelli said.

Like in Internet-based multi-player games, such as "World of Warcraft," many people could participate and share input, Marinelli said.

"We call it 'augmented reality' -- or bringing to one's perception things that otherwise would not be perceived," he said.

A real-world application ultimately could be a military helmet and mask like the one Robert Downey Jr.'s character wears in the movie "Iron Man," Burke said.

The inside of the helmet and mask could "enhance communication with other soldiers, visualize things in and around the soldier's location and identify where the good and bad guys are," Burke said.

Burke said Lockheed Martin chose CMU's Entertainment Technology Center for the project after another Marinelli team returned "fantastic results" for a project last year.

Lockheed Martin funded the CMU center with $100,000 to create a "game environment that enabled our (Department of Defense) customer base to make decisions quicker," he said. "Our leadership was very impressed."

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