Espace Presse – Virtual worlds: when science fiction becomes reality!

Science fiction: a source of inspiration?

Science fiction (SF) movies serve us with our technological roadmap and give us avenues to explore. We all have sci-fi references in mind. Unconsciously, they inspire us and we try to imitate them, to make them a reality.

Top 4 SF movies and series about virtual worlds that inspire you?

  • Matrix, by the Wachowski brothers (1st release in 1999). With the famous Matrix, a virtual universe designed by artificial intelligence and where machines enslave people without their knowledge.

  • Clones (Surrogates), by Jonathan Mostow, released in 2009. In this futuristic world, individuals use robotic versions of themselves that they control remotely to do everything for them.

  • Ready Player One, by Steven Spielberg, was released in 2018. In 2045, part of the population spends most of its time in the OASIS, a virtual and addictive universe, thus fleeing a chaotic world, a permanent virtual reality headset for the eyes.

  • Upload, series by Greg Daniels, released in 2020. People, before dying, can upload their consciousness to a metaverse and continue to live only through thought.

Metaverse, remote control of robots, digital twin… This is not science fiction anymore!

What was once imaginary began to be tangible and real.

The metaverse or metaverse of “Ready Player One” is the last developed by Meta, with the same level of immersion. It’s just a virtual world, where we immerse ourselves through an avatar and a virtual reality helmet, to interact with people, invite friends, shop or drive cars for example. In this metaverse, there is no contact with the real world.

In “Ready Player One”, characters can do physically impossible things. At CEA, we develop virtual worlds to serve the industry, with realistic physical laws. No rising operators, Iron Man and Thor in the factories! Thus we develop digital twins, either models of a system or an object (an assembly line for example), developed by first copying what happens in the real world.

A digital twin makes it possible to copy real industrial platforms to train individuals in maintenance or assembly operations through augmented reality, in cooperation with virtual robots. These digital twins can also be used in the deployment and startup phase of a production system.

The film “Clones” corresponds to what we are trying to do technically at CEA through our teleoperation project with haptic feedback. The idea is to remotely operate humanoid robots that can be perfect copies of ourselves, thanks to immersive systems similar to those used for metaverses and haptic feedback to feel efforts. Touch is essential in teleoperation tasks. At CEA, we have an interface that allows the remote operation of two virtual arms. At the end of these arms, we have a strong feedback glove. This project is dedicated to industrial applications, especially in the nuclear industry, to teleoperate a robot that will perform an intervention on a machine or maintenance on a real site, in collaboration with other people. So we combine immersive technologies with robotics – cobotics. Recently, Japan conducted this teleoperation experiment on a power pole.

Technologies in the service of a better world or the realization of nightmarish dystopian films?

There is no denying that we live with these new immersive technologies. Dystopian movies can be seen as lessons in all the bad uses we can make of them. This is a form of feedback to help us anticipate the worst possible scenarios! It is important in my opinion to have an ethical framework for these virtual worlds. As researchers and engineers, we try to keep this ethical behavior in mind and we have to think about it when we design our technologies, but it also does not stop our research, our taste for the challenge, our ability to face challenges. The ethical framework is not the responsibility of researchers but of governments and specialized organizations that can support technologists, set limits and provide solutions.

Let’s not forget all the advantages of these technologies! The immersive technologies combined with robotics – cobotics or the digital twins that we develop thus make it possible to secure workstations, improve performance as well as the comfort of operators in the world of industry.

Together with ENSAM, CESI and CNAM, we are also working on a metaverse project for education, with digital twins. This project, titled “Twin of immersive and interactive digital education (JENII)”, will make it possible to make physical platforms easier​​​​(a course can be given at the same time in Lille and Strasbourg), to train many students in machining machines that are relatively rare because they are expensive, to increase the student’s capacity to be an artist in his learning because he is able to manipulate. At INSTN, CEA’s school of specialization in low-carbon energies and health technologies, we have created a digital teaching twin in a reactor that makes possible a better visualization of physical phenomena and concepts that are difficult to demonstrate in real physical system. In particular, INSTN students can go to the heart of a virtual reactor, which is obviously impossible in the real world. During the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, students cannot access physical platforms and no one can manipulate them. If there are other crises, then virtual education of this quality will prove to be more necessary and valuable.

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