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Duke scientists work to imitate 'Star Trek'

Ever dreamt of teleporting to your class on Science Drive when you miss the C-3 bus, walking invisibly into Cameron Indoor Stadium without waiting in line or escaping to a different reality after a night of drunken revelry goes embarrassingly wrong?

Even though some of these opportunities may stay firmly in the realm of science fiction, others are already becoming reality-as scientists boldly go where no researcher has gone before.

Three Duke scientists featured some such inventions on the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" show Monday night.

Rachael Brady, director of the Visualization Technology Group, is the inventor of the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment. Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor David Smith and Associate Professor Steve Cummer were responsible for the creation of the award-winning "invisibility cloak" last year.

The hour-long episode, entitled "Star Trek Tech," compared technologies such as the DiVE and the invisibility cloak to various "Star Trek" inventions, including the holodeck-a virtual reality environment on the show-and the Starship Enterprise's cloaking device.

One segment featured Smith and Cummer in their laboratory next to a computer monitor that demonstrated the effects of the cloak on microwaves.

The cloak's "metamaterials," which have unique electromagnetic properties not found in nature, allow it to redirect the waves around itself and have them appear behind it relatively undisturbed.

"As far as any observer would be able to determine, there is nothing in this space," Cummer said, pointing to the circular device.

As long as the watcher was observing at microwave frequency, anyway.

The team has yet to achieve the same effect at visible wavelengths, so the comparison to "Star Trek" is not entirely accurate, even though the science used in both instances is the same, Smith said.

"In 'Star Trek,' you have light coming from [the back of the ship that] resurfaces on the other side, so whatever is behind the ship is what you see," he said. "That's exactly how our cloak works-the difference is 'Star Trek' imagines the waves bent in space somehow, and we require an actual structure to have that effect."

The last segment of the show drew parallels between the holodeck and virtual reality environments such as the DiVE.

The DiVE is composed of a series of projectors and six walls in the shape of a cube and allows users with special glasses to travel through ancient Greece or cut apart a diseased human brain.

Even the high-tech DiVE, however, is not nearly up to Enterprise standards, Brady said.

"For one, the holodeck is able to make things-materials you are free to pick up, Brady said. "[Also, there is the] size of the facility-we can't do something much larger than a 10-foot-by-10-foot room, whereas in the holodeck you are able to walk continuously."

So what's on the horizon for Duke's innovative scientists?

Integrating immersive sound, creating smells and solving the tricky problem of simulating human motion will be on Brady's to-do list, and Smith and his crew will concentrate on designing non-symmetrically shaped cloaks and making much larger ones.

After all, as one of the invisibility cloak's other inventors, Dave Schurig, said on the show, the tiny cloak could not be much use to the starship now.

"If the Enterprise were to be cloaked by this it would have to fit into this hole," he said, pointing to a space about an inch in diameter.


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