In the April issue of the Nomadness Report, I ran this little feature… thought it might be fun to share it more widely here in the blog:
The Nomadness Emulation & Telepresence System
April 1, 2012
Finally, as this issue draws to a close, I want to tell you about the skunkworks project that is underway here at Nomadic Research Labs, shepherded by a hand-picked team of engineers.
We ran an extrapolation of my progress on nautical technomadic projects, including Microship. In 20 years, a staggering amount of human time and other resources have been poured into these endeavors.
Along the way, we formulated the Roberts Law of Fractal To-Do List Complexity, which postulates that each item on a list is itself the title of a new list. This proceeds recursively all the way down (like the famed turtles), providing endless opportunities for discovery along with the potential for negative progress as work is completed (exacerbated by product life cycles and the emergence of seductive new technologies).
Meanwhile, we must contend with the well-known adage that the average completion time of a homebuilt boat is 137 years. While the Microship project was back-burnered after only about 10% of that and Nomadness is already a perfectly serviceable boat, the layers of added geekery are restoring the developmental time-sinks that were eliminated by starting with something that was well-suited to voyaging before I started tinkering with it.
Lest these combined influences result in one of those never-ending projects that you can find in any marina, we’ve decided to leapfrog the current trajectory with a system designed to provide adventure opportunities well into my dotage.
The Nomadness Emulation and Telepresence System (NETS) eliminates the inconvenient issues of handling a heavy boat and powerful rig with an ever-weakening body — a problem that has led many intrepid voyagers to trade in their sailboats for trawlers. Unwilling to go quietly to the Dark Side, I have decided to replace myself with a suite of real-time telemetry tools coupled to an immersive simulation pod, providing a toolset for adventure synthesis.
The idea was sparked by a nameless wag who once quipped, “you can simulate sailing by standing in a cold shower and tearing up hundred-dollar bills.” On a hunch, we set up a double-blind test to see if this was indeed the case, and while there were numerous flaws in the illusion, we found that 42% of our experimental subjects reacted to the shower chamber with nearly identical levels of adrenaline and cardiac arousal (especially when they were required to use their own hundred-dollar bills, an experience that one participant compared to dropping by West Marine for a “simple plumbing problem” before financial issues forced him to quit the experiment).
Encouraged, we decided to extend the metaphor with more of a live boat experience, and pulled out all the stops. Hydraulic control systems drive a helm pod with six-axis motion simulation, including all three translation axes (fore-aft, lateral, and vertical) as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. Background vibration and cross-axis motion are minimized by dedicated closed-loop controllers with accelerometer feedback, faithfully reproducing the streaming input data with critical damping.
Our visual production team surrounded the helm pod with a large dome that is essentially a “hemisphere plus,” allowing us to present the illusion of wave patterns that go negative relative to the apparent horizon. A dedicated network of graphics processors provides gigapixel, flicker-free imagery at about 60 frames per second, depending on wearable Polhemus sensors to devote the bulk of this considerable processing power to the region bounded by the pilot’s current gaze vector and further optimized in the foveal region as detected by laser retro-reflection.
Since the real Nomadness is not yet complete, all initial testing of the NETS has involved simulated data… something that has been entertaining for all concerned. Roll-overs and knockdowns are as easy to generate as a lazy reach or a muggy day in the Doldrums; with environmental controls and saline nozzles, it’s just a matter of coordinating fluid-physics emulation with the corresponding reaction of the simulated ship. Sea-sickness was initially a problem, but after some fMRI data collection we were able to synchronize kinesthetic and visual data. Powerful broad-spectrum illumination induces melanin synthesis when needed, and of course we can hammer the helm with wind of sufficient velocity to complete the illusion of a gale.
Still, it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off when you know it’s just a simulation. Phase 2 involves a massive real-time data feed from Nomadness herself, including everything from a suite of high-def cameras to accelerometers and environmental sensors. The link is bidirectional, as the ship is unmanned to optimize the illusion of being there.
When complete, the pod’s wheel, instruments, lines, winches, and other affordances will transmit live command and control data to the ship, driving end effectors coupled to corresponding components (amplified by a feebleness constant to compensate for my aging). Even biological factors are taken into consideration; invoking the zippered man-hour extension facility to utilize the 4U2PN2 device (rail emulation if outside, head if below) is fraught with a level of peril matched to the current PSD plot of accelerometer data… since we realized that being too casual about such matters in the middle of a gale would shatter the entire illusion.
It remains to be seen how well remote socialization works, but we are preparing a series of tests involving anchorages, marinas, and raft-ups… with a crusty avatar engaging as needed with live sailors.
Once complete, the NETS pod will be installed in the Friday Harbor extended care facility where Kirsten works as a nurse, and I will move aboard to while away my sunset years in a voyage of discovery.