This article was originally published in 2014 for Kill Screen Issue 8: Virtual Reality.
Not to mix my Star Trek metaphors before even getting started, but the holodeck is the Omega particle. For the showrunners of The Next Generation and thereafter, it was a semi-magical apparatus, a gridded room accessed through bay doors that functioned as the Enterprise and, later, the Voyager’s mind-eye. From within, holograms of limitless physical dimension were projected, indistinguishable from real life, simulating remote destinations from deep space: verdant green forests, a quaint Irish knoll. It could reconstruct whatever you wanted in the blink of an eye.
Like the hyperdrive and the transporter before it, it also served as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the show’s writers. Literary characters were cloned from ether. Data was whisked to the Wild West. But the Holodeck persisted not only because it multiplied the number of possible plot events by the sum of infinity, but also because it captured and validated the introverted imaginations of those who to this day unintentionally find themselves quoting Picard. Despite the show’s unbridled scientific optimism, it projects a seductive future of infinite escape. It’s hard to fathom how this was syndicated on network TV.
In virtual reality, the holodeck remains a sort of platonic ideal. There are many who believe that one day we will each have our very own functioning version of it: A machine that produces with ease any reality, in any home, just as you have a washing machine that cleans any pair of jeans. A New York Times article from 2014 estimates we’ll see something similar to it by 2024. And Gene Dolgoff, a 3D-imaging pioneer whose work directly inspired the Holodeck, has been advocating commonly available holographic reality since the ’60s. “I’d say [it’s] 10 to 15 years before an optical holosuite. Maybe 100-150 years before a matter holosuite,” he predicted in 2012 in a Reddit Ask Me Anything appearance.
A machine that produces with ease any reality, in any home
Over the phone, Dolgoff describes the holodeck as a very intense computer that, he concedes, will take more computing power than we have nowadays. In both the fiction and his papers on the holographic models of the brain, the holodeck generates two kinds of holograms: one visual, and the other physical. This is a matter of being resourceful. It takes immensely less energy to generate a holographic image than it would to generate a holographic piece of matter, a substance you could pick up and touch and safely eat. Both the physical and nonphysical would be created the same way: “By energy being reshaped by a stored interference pattern that recreates matter with the same shape of real stuff,” he explains.
In his younger years, Dolgoff was a professional holographer. He was taught how to construct holograms—that is, interference patterns of light that recreate 3D images in midair—by the electrical engineer Emmett Leith, one of the first in the field. In 1964, he opened his own laser holography laboratory in Manhattan, where he came to believe that holograms would change the course of history. “It opened my eyes to a whole new approach to looking at the universe. The basis for everything in physics is the interference science that is underlying holography,” he tells me, explaining how matter, when broken down into small enough fragments, is pure energy. He claims that if holograms were projected from very high-frequency waves, like gamma and cosmic waves, they could produce physical substance.
It was years later, in 1973, when he finagled his way into pitching the idea to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. He was giving a talk on holograms at a conference in Prague when he met two scientists who were studying how the psychic Uri Geller could bend spoons with his mind. Together, they brought Geller to Dolgoff’s laboratory in New York, only to find that he was unable to telekinetically interfere with holographic beams.
But the experiment yielded an unexpected result. One of those scientists later introduced Dolgoff to Roddenberry. The two spent the day at a hotel, along with Majel Barrett, Roddenberry’s second wife, discussing how the distant future would be radically shaped by the invention of holographic matter replicators. He must have been convincing: They agreed on the name “holodeck,” combining “holo” from hologram and “deck” from the deck of a boat. The anachronism of the portmanteau is appropriate for an idea that seems, still, just out of time.