Virtual Reality, as we talked about last week, has been around for a long time in both fiction and fact. However, it is through science fiction that the limits of V.R. have been pushed to the extreme. Star Trek: The Next Generation showed us holographic environments in which people (and Klingons) could interact without the need for helmets and headphones. Back in 1976, the “Doctor Who serial introduced us to the “Matrix”, a computer generated reality that was more dream than reality. Then, the movie franchise “The Matrix as well as episodes of “Stargate: SG-1″  and “Stargate Atlantis” took us further and showed us the V.R world generated from our subconscious.

But how close are we in real life to these amazing environments? Not very. You see, in order to create these fantastic atmospheres, we would need a huge amount of energy, not to mention the limitations thus far on processors and imaging quality. Also, there hasn’t been anyone who could come up with a way to destroy the laws of physics and make solid matter out of virtual matter. So I’m thinking replicators may not become a reality for generating food, clothing and furniture. And I was so looking forward to trying Synth Ale. Oh well.

So if we can’t create, in reality, a virtual world that we fully interact within, what’s next? According to the movie Surrogates”, the next step is the creation of robotic avatars that we could jack into. Through these empty shells, we’d live our lives as ourselves and someone else at the same time. Think about it. A man who is a paraplegic, could jack into his avatar and go skiing, run a marathon, or simply walk along a beach at sunset feeling the waves on his toes. Or a woman who thinks she is unattractive, could become as beautiful as Monica Belluci and never feel terrible about herself again. Or would she? Of course, if you’re feeling really adventurous, then you could connect to an avatar that’s on, say Mars and take a walk-about without having to wear special space suits.

Researchers have been working for years to develop robot avatars which; utilizing thought-control, could be an extension of disabled persons. Paul Wilford, who is a senior research director at Bell Labs in New Jersey, used a telepresence project back in 2010 called NetHead (Max Headrom anyone?). Wilford had been hurt in a bicycle accident and was at home for two months recuperating. So, to make sure he didn’t miss work, he utilized this project which allowed a robotic head to act as his proxy. People just spoke to it and he spoke back through it.

In the near future, it is believed that robots will be in the homes of many disabled persons, as well as in libraries and universities. Doctors have been using robots for at least a decade to perform surgeries or rounds on patients long-distance. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a robotic avatar going to a meeting, social function or school in your place.

Who knows what the future of robotics in both the real world or in fiction will conjure up next. But it is safe to say, that robotic avatars are potentially a thing of our future.

What do you see as the pros and cons of these mechanized extensions of humanity? If you had the opportunity to have one, would you? And what would you use it for? Please leave a comment. I’d really love to know.

Speaking of avatars and virtual reality, next week I’ll tell you about sci-fi’s impact on what we now call Cyberspace. Sci-fi has played a huge roll in the development and naming of different components of the Internet. I’m looking forward to sharing that with each of you. Until then,

“You take the blue pill-the story ends, you wake up in bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Morpheus – The Matrix.

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