Telepresence projects used to involve just seeing and hearing things that happened at a great distance, but Tokyo University’s Ikei Laboratory plans to create a virtual body that employs all five senses.
The virtual body technology was showcased by the Ikei Laboratory at Digital Contents Expo 2012 in Tokyo last October. The system includes not only a 3D monitor and headphones, like in the case of typical telepresence projects, but also a fan that disperses odors and creates a breeze. The chair on which people would sit reclines, elevates and vibrates. Not at last, people have pedals at their disposal that mimic walking and running. Even though the chair is said to “satisfy” all five senses, I am not sure as to how taste is experienced. Other than that, the developers of the virtual body chair should be praised for the not-so-mindblowing, yet innovative approach.
Yasushi Ikei, Dr. Eng. Professor at the Tokyo Metropolitan University and head of the Ikei Laboratory from the same institution, declared: “This exhibition of a virtual body is for the purpose of having a vicarious experience. This technology aims to enable various experiences as if having assumed a different person’s body. This exhibition gives people the opportunity to vicariously experience traveling in Milan and running the world record 100-meter dash of famous athlete Usain Bolt.
The chair will move to provide directional and vestibular sensations. The legs will move to create a sense of actually walking or running and a sense of moving in parallel or up and down, or to create a sensation as if the feet are touching the ground. Extremely large vibrations are felt when you are running, so it is possible to create vibrations from the shins to the knees. When you walk in the city there are various scents and breezes, and these are also recreated.”
Even though Ikei Laboratory’s Virtual Body involves all five senses, I don’t think it represents a threat to tourism. Yes, it will help develop virtual tourism, but walking using one’s own feet in a foreign place is a unique experience that could never be replaced in any way through virtual means. I am firmly convinced, though, that the Virtual Body represents a step forward for technology. The investment of time, research and development in this project was entirely worth it.