A 360-degree treadmill designed for the military is being used with a virtual reality headset to help demonstrate what UK towns and cities will look like when autonomous pods buzz along the pavements – and how they will avoid crashing into you.
Modified to help show commuters, town planners and property owners what UK town centres of the future will look like, the system is being used to simulate how Milton Keynes' network of autonomous pods will work.
This is the first time such technology has been used for non-military applications. Instead of a war-torn village with enemy soldiers lurking around every corner, the Omnideck by Swedish company Omnifinity is loaded with a virtual Milton Keynes – specifically a large pedestrianised area stretching from the train station to a business park.
Donning an Oculus Rift VR headset, IBTimes UK tried out the Omnideck and discovered the town laid out ahead of us. The system uses 15 cameras on the ceiling to detect your movement and start each corresponding segment of rollers, which turn against your feet to stop you walking off the edge. They quickly adjust to your speed and start as soon as you step over onto a new segment. While walking, the VR world moves towards you at a similar speed, giving a fairly accurate impression that you are making progress through it.
You can inspect a bus timetable outside the station, but the real point of this system is the Lutz Pathfinder. An autonomous pod capable of carrying two people along pavements at up to 15 miles per hour, the Pathfinder will begin public testing this summer, before being made available to the public in this same area of Milton Keynes in 2017. Because they will drive in pedestrian areas and not on the roads, they use lasers, radar and sophisticated cameras to avoid contact with pedestrians and street furniture.
The VR simulation contains several Pathfinders, which stop when you walk out in front of them. It is hoped the system will convince the public that such vehicles are safe enough to share the pavements with. Demonstrating the technology to IBTimes UK at the Imagine Festival in Milton Keynes, Omnifinity says the treadmill could also be used to simulate how the government's controversial High Speed 2 railway will look and sound, and how its presence between Birmingham and London will impact the lives of those living nearby.
The system could also simulate how a third runway at Heathrow would cause changes to those living under the flightpath.