A recurrent theme in science fiction is the concept of an avatar, a digital version of you that you control in a virtual world. Maybe the highest representation of this was in The Matrix, where you literally plugged yourself into the program that was creating a fake world, and you were exactly the same, mind and body, but your real body was somewhere else. Then there was kung-fu followed by a whole lot of headache-inducing gibberish, but not everything has to follow that template.
People were always excited about avatars, and so assigned the name to things that didn’t really fit, such as your picture on a message board. Remember that? “Choose an image for your avatar”- a massively disappointing degradation of the language. Eventually, as technology improved, you got to create avatars for game systems like Nintendo Wii, in which the little armless, knob-handed pegperson would roughly follow your movements. That was getting closer.
Avatars have greatly improved, but they can get better, and, if any recent indications are true, they’re about to take a massive leap forward. This is spurred by the Silicon Valley semiconducter pioneer Fairchild Electronics’ purchase of Xsens, which for 12 years has been on the cutting edge of 3D Motion Tracking. You can tell Fairchild is an older company, because its name sounds like someone’s name, as opposed to a motivational poster drunkenly Scrabbled into a hostage note, like many of its upstart neighbors. Despite its age, Fairchild has been broadening its horizons in a big way over the last year, and they’re betting that this technology can combine with mobile and wearable devices and the internet of things to change the way we work, exercise, and play.
3D Motion Tracking – Proving Practical Applications Can Be Fun
We’ve all seen motion-capture technology. It’s a big part of why 3D video games look so amazing. We’ve also seen it in movies, where Andy Serkis (and it’s always Andy Serkis) is covered in little electronic balls and moves around, and suddenly there is Gollum or King Kong on the screen. But it isn’t precisely true to say it is capturing his movements, as much as the data corresponding with those movements.
It might seem like splitting hairs, but the difference is important. The sensors aren’t watching him, they are connected to transform the data of his movements into a simulacrum in a different venue. It’s how they are able to extrapolate movements for video games. NBA Live doesn’t motion capture LeBron James doing literally everything he can do on a court, because that would have to be beat-for-beat with his life, like some kind of endless Borgesian map. Also, it would have to include him flopping. But with the data, it can create an image of how he would move in certain situations, which gives these games their astonishing reality.
Wearing the 3D Motion Tracking Sensors
I doubt there is anyone who has seen people in 3D bodysuits and didn’t want to try it out. But that doesn’t seem very practical – we don’t all have a Hollywood CGI crew at our beck and call, unless you are James Cameron, in which case, James: I have a great movie pitch for you (it’s about time-traveling cyborgs… from the past). It’s a safe bet, though, that Fairchild didn’t get into this game to be involved in Hollywood.
No, they got in it because this kind of 3D tech can be combined with other explosive technological gains in the mobile and wearable tech world to change the way we do nearly everything. Wearable 3D sensors, the kind that can read data from your movements, can be a huge boon in athletics, letting you know exactly what is going on with your movements. Imagine a baseball player having an instant 3D replication of his swing, rendering every muscle in perfect reflection, to see the tiny hitch he developed, and being able to recognize how he can instantly change that. This can trickle down to amatuer athletes as well, particularly runners and swimmers, and, if combined with biometric sensors, can let you know exactly how what you do affects you. You can get back from a run and see at what point your heart reached its maximal rate, and see what body motions caused that.
Gaming can also be transformed. We’ve talked about virtual reality games before, and even the Holodeck, but this could help to make that a reality in a way that is recognizable from science fiction. Imagine being able to create your perfect avatar, and introduce it into fictional worlds.
The Realm of Pure Speculation
I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I see broader implications for this. Motion sensors can collect data, and that data can be instantly transferred to other devices primed to receive it. Imagine stepping into a room and merely mimicking the motion to turn on the light – your 3D sensor read that, created the motion, and relayed that movement to the lights, which are connected by the internet of things. Ah, but: too bright. So you dim it, just by turning your fingers.
This kind of sounds like magic, once you extrapolate and think of all the devices that can be connected to each other, and you connected along with them. Mobile devices that can understand your movements open up entirely new venues in gaming and in real life, though, at some point, it might be fair to question what the real difference is.