Strange machines, mysterious headsets and a dizzying array of screens clutter the bunker-like space in the demonstration basement. A man standing in a bright white cube steps from side to side while a computer sprite on a screen reproduces his every gesture.  A tiny-scale cast of John Cleese’s head – accurate to the tiniest detail and painted realistically – sits on the table by a whirring, clicking machine that created it: a 3D printer, one of the most cutting edge toys in the field of 3D technology.

This is the headquarters of Inition in London, a company whose gadgets are blurring the increasingly fine border between the real and the virtual. They have a host of immersive technologies which are on their way to churning out virtual worlds almost inseparable from reality. For example: Haptic devices allow us to interact with virtual 3D environments and feel the same sensations—force, temperature and texture—as if the computer models were real. One of them allows a virtual ball of clay on a computer screen to be moulded, gauged and stretched using a robotic wand that reproduces the resistance of the clay, while another can be used to spin a virtual ball around on elastic. 
Haptics are already being developed to improve robot-assisted surgery, allowing surgeons to ‘feel their way’ inside the patient’s body, since the lack of sensory cues has been blamed for the increased risk of internal injuries from robot-assisted surgery. They’ve also written software which mimics injecting a needle into flesh with botox, so that medical students can perfect their art before plunging pieces of metal into people’s faces.
 
It’s already possible to get a high five from a hologram and feel it, using a Haptic glove. So the next logical step is to stretch it out into a suit, so that our whole bodies can interact with the virtual world and experience its sensations. Considering the geeks at Inition regularly get commissions to make realistic replicas of people's genitals, it can’t be that long before Haptics is used to thrust us inside porn movies, so that we can really feel the texture of Jenna Jameson and Sasha Grey’s bodies and interact with their doppelgangers as though they were really in the room. It would make the sci-fi vision of the interactive porno fantasy land a reality, although it would raise a few ethical issues, like whether the people depicted in the fantasy-land consented to a lifelike reproduction of themselves being penetrated by thousands of men simultaneously wearing Haptic suits.
 

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Augmented Reality technology does the opposite of bringing us into a virtual world, adding 3D graphics into live video footage of real objects and people. The units in Inition’s lab act like mirrors, displaying what is directly in front of the screen, but adding in additional objects. One example places a model of a car in the hand of the user, allowing them to move it around to examine its details.
The military are increasingly using augmented reality technology in the battlefield – headsets overlay the real terrain with tactical information and notations that remain geographically fixed. This same technology is already accessible to us through smartphone apps that recognise features seen through the inbuilt camera and display reality with additional information, or tags left in that location by other app users. This represents a blurring of the lines between the real world and the world of information we spend so much of our days navigating. 
 
As the mini model of John Cleese shows, 3D technology isn’t limited to creating weightless  holograms that don’t exist physically. The Cleese head was built using a 3D printer, which print layer by layer with either molten resin or powder and glue.
They’re pretty slow at the moment, but the fineness of the detail is unbelievable. One 7cm figurine of a lizard’s face has teeth as small as grains of sand, but still perfectly formed and razor sharp.  Elsewhere, a life-sized human skull sits on top of one of the printers, printed directly from a composite of X-ray medical scans with thin ridges showing the slices of missing information between the scans. They can even print moving parts, such as cogs that will turn as soon as the object is complete. 
It’s an incredible resource for architects, product designers and the medical profession, but it’s not as though Currys will be stocking 3D printers any time soon. Outside of big industry, most of these gadgets’ only use in the next few years will be as marketing stunts for companies that can afford to buy the technology to create a 20ft hologram of their product.  There’s a pretty impressive—although practically useless—way of making a virtual watch appear on your wrist, or making a hologram of a giant Coke bottle spin in mid-air. 
 
As much as they grab our attention now while we’re not used to them, these gadgets have very little use by individuals as opposed to large industries. The most consumer-friendly product in development is a 3D television that doesn’t require glasses, although it’s a pain to watch because it only works at certain angles. This would obviously be useless in a cinema, but could work in a room where there are only a few carefully positioned chairs. 
 
So for the meantime, cinema-goers will be stuck with their stupid glasses if they want to see a sword thrusting towards them onscreen. And the Jenna Jameson / Sasha Grey threesome will only exist for the meantime inside our heads, or at best on a screen. But as the virtual world becomes more like the physical one, the closer humans are getting to bringing imaginary figments to life.
 
Text: Matt Daw

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