Sci-Fi Today, Sci-Fact Tomorrow

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In the future of Stephen Spielberg's Minority Report, televisions and computers have been replaced by transparent screens on which life-size images appear to be floating in thin air. Watching Tom Cruise operate this fictional technology, David Lauren, Vice President of Ralph Lauren, was inspired to develop similar screens, but with a retail spin — his version would be implanted behind a store's glass window and would be touch sensitive, allowing window shoppers to interactively browse through Lauren merchandise and purchase what they saw using a built in credit-card swiper. The first of these screens was inaugurated on August 7th at the Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store in Manhattan. It is operative and manned by a security guard 24 hours a day, according to Lauren, and purchases are shipped directly to consumers' homes. Canadian company, Brookview Technologies constructed the system from a 67-inch transparent screen made in Germany and British touch technology. "There is no other transparent touch screen in the world that I know of," said James Fuller, President of Brookview Tech. The company's website explains that the images on the screen are strategically projected from behind, "and then directed towards the observer by thousands of holographic optical elements" that are "stored on a photographic film, which has been specially processed with laser."

Currently, the "window" store is U.S. Open-themed, only offering Lauren's U.S. Open line, along with articles and tips on tennis — the Ralph Lauren "virtual store" at the Open will feature three of these screens. The members of Lauren's Interactive Agency, however, foresee the expansion of their retail touch-screens to street corners, bars and other high-traffic areas. David Lauren hopes that this new window-shopping screen will be the next step in combining technology and retail, what he calls "merchentainment." Lauren is not the first, however, to attempt turning entertainment fantasy into functional reality.

Hoping to increase the benefits and accessibility of pet therapy, researchers from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology's Robotic Life Group looked to the animatronic teddy bear that keeps Haley Joel Osment's robot-boy company in the movie AI. The researchers have been working since 2005 to engineer an interactive health care teddy bear, with advice from Hollywood's Stan Winston Studio, the engineers behind AI's "Teddy," according to MIT student researcher Dan Stiehl.

A few weeks ago, a prototype of the "Huggable" was unveiled at the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Boston. According to the Robotic Life Group's website, "studies have shown that animals are capable of lowering stress, reducing heart and respiratory rate, showing positive changes in hormonal levels, mood elevation, and increased social facilitation." There are many situations, however, in which patients cannot utilize animal therapy: if they have allergies, are in certain public spaces, etc. The Huggable not only overcomes those hurdles, but should be able to interact with patients and provide quantitative information to caregivers. It will have full-body sensors that detect electric field, temperature and force from beneath its soft fur and is programmed with algorithms that should be able to distinguish petting, tickling, scratching, slapping and poking. "To be effective, therapeutic robotic companions must also be able to understand and appropriately respond to how a person touches it," the group's website says. Face recognition technology helps the Huggable recognize familiar faces. Its internal PC will monitor the patient's condition and alert a nursing staff to negative developments.

Star Trek's "holodeck," an immersive and utterly realistic virtual environment, inspired Case Western Reserve University Assistant Professor Stacy Williams to conceptualize a virtual reality theater to help people with communications disorders (i.e., stuttering problems, high-functioning autism, recovering from strokes, etc.). Case Western has always been an advocate of what Williams calls the "sage on the stage versus the guide on the side" learning method, in which students gain their own knowledge through "routine, everyday activities and/or challenges" with intermittent guidance from a teacher, she says. "Star Trek is that situated learning paradigm at its prime," says Williams, referring to the way that the holodeck was used for education and simulation (like "when they wanted to go to war with the Klingons," she says). Thus, Williams, who is also a speech language pathologist, wanted to create a virtual reality system that enabled speech therapy patients to practice and gain confidence speaking in lifelike situations, but in a controlled environment.

With funding from Case Western, Williams found a technology company willing to try and turn her Trekkie fantasy into reality: VirTra Systems of Arlington, Texas, which specializes in the creation of virtual training systems for the U.S. military. VirTra and Williams collaborated to design a 180-degree, three-screen high-definition movie theater and a process for creating multiple-choice adventure type movies.

In April, the construction of the first "Immersive Virtual Reality Cave Simulator" (IVR-Cave) at the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center was completed and is expected to open to patients in fall 2006, after going through Case Western's internal review board. The simulator is not just for speech therapy patients, however, it is also for students at Case Western who are studying to become speech language psychiatrists. It is a way for students to practice making diagnoses and working with patients, without having to continually hire actors the way medical schools usually do.

At a small Hollywood studio, Williams and directors from other Case media institutions created three films for the IVR-Cave: two for speech therapy patients about ordering food at a McDonald's counter and drive-through, and a third for speech pathology students, about diagnosing a child with a communication disorder and better communicating themselves with the parents. Each film contains multiple branch points, where a therapist can choose how the scenario will proceed depending on the patient's response. For example, if the patient is acting up, the McDonald's employee may go and get the manager, while if the customer is seriously stuttering, the worker may smirk or laugh.

As opposed to simulating scenarios in a room with actors, the IVR-Cave allows teachers and therapists to slip real-life distractors like cell phones ringing, babies crying and people talking loudly into the experience. Additionally, the simulator tracks patients' anxiety and heart rate by biometric feedback, and each simulated experience is video recorded so it can be replayed and deconstructed with the therapist or teacher. "Newly developed treatment content could soon be... licensed worldwide for speech pathology treatment," Tom Milks, vice president of advertising and promotions at VirTra Systems told the Case Western News Center. Williams notes that the IVR-Cave "can be applied to a variety of disciplines and allied health professions.

"Imagine the law school using this learning environment to argue a virtual court case or the med school to simulate an ER environment... or social work to counsel an inmate in a prison environment," she says. But, she adds, "the next critical step is to complete the research necessary to determine if this new interactive virtual reality theater is effective in helping people with communication disorders." Meanwhile she has just received a Presidential Research Initiative Grant for $80,000 to create four more virtual reality films to Case Western students.

In 2001, when the U.S. Army wanted to design a better vehicle for Iraqi-style urban warfare, its Tank-automotive and Armaments Command's National Automotive Center (NAC) contracted several companies — including Ford Motor Co. and Integrated Concepts and Research Corp. (ICRC) — to develop a gadget-laden, all-terrain vehicle in the style of the ever-equipped James Bond. "The truck's design team drew inspiration from 007 movies," NAC spokesperson for the Army's National Automotive Center, Germane Fuller told TechWeb in 2001.

"I told the guys, 'We've got to think out of the box,'" NAC director Dennis Wend told Difflock magazine. "So, we sat down and studied those old movies. They got a lot of ideas from them." The SmarTruck features high voltage door handles, laser guns, a grenade launcher, a pepper spray canister with a six-foot range, and special super-bright headlights that disorient anyone outside. The vehicle also comes equipped with night vision and is surrounded by cameras that allow those inside to see a 360-degree panorama of their surroundings. The cameras, doors, windows, cell phone and radio are all voice activated. While there have been SmarTruck 1, 2 or 3 prototype vehicles, none have actually even been used, according to Brandon Card of ICRC.

"It's called a platform technology demonstrator," says Don Jorosz, from the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command Public Affairs Office. "They're just demonstrating how you can use these different technologies on a vehicle."

But what the SmarTruck initiative also demonstrates is a willingness among inventors to challenge the dichotomies between fantasy and reality, leisure and labor. The creators of the SmarTruck, and those of the invisible touch screen, the Huggable and the IVR-Cave, watched T.V. and went to the movies like the average American. But unlike the average American, they didn't use these leisure pursuits to escape from reality. Rather, they used enterntainment to embrace reality: transforming what many would deem pure fantasy into practical improvements to their reality.