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Make it so: holodeck from Star Trek is closer than you think

The science fiction's Holodeck is now being researched, with primitive prototypes reported by industry and academia.

Fans of Star Trek will be familiar with the holodeck – a chamber that completely immerses the user in a virtual setting that is both visual and sensory.

Science fiction technologies have a long history of migration into the real world, and it looks as if the holodeck may become a reality. It is under research, with primitive prototypes reported by industry and academia.

The underpinning technology covers computing, communications, displays and sensors, just to name a few areas. The research benefits other areas too. From a communications technology point of view, the immersion video experience can lead to an explosion of data transmission capability.

Even today, more than 70 per cent of wireless bandwidth is used for data-intensive videos, and the number is growing. Our gadgets and online infrastructure will have to keep pace with our increasing demand for high-quality, high-speed data transfer.

New communication links will have to be developed that can sustain data transfer rates of tens of gigabits a second to a portable device, compared with today’s rates of typically a few megabits and at best a few hundred megabits.

This will not be easy. Fortunately, the rapid gains made starting from the 1960s in shrinking the size of transistors, which today allow billions of transistors to be fitted on a single chip, have also tremendously improved the rate at which they transmit electrical impulses.

The prospect of wireless links with such high-speed rates appears real, but it requires the most advanced nanoscale transistor technologies available today.

Academic research institutes that focus on furthering cutting-edge of science surprisingly do not often have access to this technology. Most researchers, for example, use transistors that are 90 nanometres (millionths of a millimetre) across – the size that was at the cutting edge of computing technology about a decade ago.

This type of research, however, would benefit from transistors less than a third that size – much closer to the scale now found in today’s fastest computers.

The necessary transistor technology can be found in the labs of only the world’s top industry leaders. The Masdar Institute has been fortunate to find a partner in a leading semiconductor production company, GlobalFoundries, to help design the high-speed circuits tomorrow’s intensive data transfers require in the company’s Abu Dhabi facilities.

Masdar Institute students will also be able to produce their designs at GlobalFoundries’ manufacturing facilities. We hope this will create a pool of young, creative and highly trained minds to not only conduct unique research, but also contribute towards a knowledge-based economy in the UAE.

Skilled engineers, after all, are difficult to find in even the most well established innovation clusters. By working with future engineers during their studies, GlobalFoundries, owned by the Abu Dhabi Government’s Advanced Technology Investment Company, is contributing to the quality and availability of the UAE’s skilled
professionals.

This kind of collaboration is essential for the UAE’s overall innovation ecosystem. Collaboration between industry and academia has long provided mutual benefit and synergy for not only the involved companies and universities, but also the wider industry and economy as a whole.

Through this partnership we hope not only to help provide promising research results to meet future high-speed data transfer demands, but also strengthen the UAE’s position as a regional hub for computer chip technology. By working together, we can help achieve our shared goals and enjoy mutual success.

Dr Ayman Shabra is an assistant professor of microsystems engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

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