Virtual reality has yet to live up to the futuristic fantasy of the Holodeck in "Star Trek," but a company called Control VR is doing its best to change that.
It has developed a wearable hand sensor that allows users to control a virtual world with their fingertips. Using the Control VR system, gamers could use natural hand gestures instead of a joystick to maneuver avatars on the computer screen, offering a more enveloping physical experience.
Control VR, based in Los Angeles, exceeded its goal in a recent Kickstarter campaign, raising nearly $450,000. It plans to start shipping the devices by the end of the year.
While Oculus Rift, now owned by Facebook, is credited with advancing virtual reality with its immersive headset, it -- like other virtual reality gaming systems -- still relies on typical controllers such as a joystick or a keyboard.
Control VR founder and CEO Alex Sarnoff said users want a more intuitive way of interacting with their virtual avatars that other developers haven't been able to match.
"None have addressed what the industry most needs for input control which is a method of accurately capturing hand and finger motions such that the user feels a true presence in virtual environments and can interact in a natural way with the virtual world," he told CBS News in an email.
"To see oneself in a virtual environment is powerful and conveys how powerful fully developed VR can be."
After 20 years of research and development, the system is finally making to the market thanks to a device almost everyone owns.
"The explosive growth of cell phone manufacturing has driven down the price and increased the availability of the materials needed to create the specialized [units] that Control VR incorporates into its systems," Sarnoff told CBS News. "Reductions in cost and size of sensor components has provided an opportunity for Control VR to bring to market our technology at a price that was previously impossible."
Looking beyond gaming, Sarnoff sees several possibilities for Control VR's future use. Hard-of-hearing and deaf users have tested the device to communicate through sign language in a virtual environment; it allows the type of natural gesturing that people expect and rely on in a social environment.
"It was powerful to see their expressions as our technology lays the foundation for a future where even the hearing impaired can enjoy virtual reality experiences in a realistic way," he said.
He also suggests that Control VR technology could make remote medical care more personalized. Gamified physical therapy could help patients heal, while data sent through the cloud would allow healthcare professionals to monitor progress and assign new exercises.
And Sarnoff hopes that with a platform for robotic control, Control VR could also enable emergency responders to safely rescue victims after a disaster. "Suddenly, having a robot open doors or pick up small objects is made simple and intuitive. This has important implications for emergency rescue and disaster relief where robots can be sent in place of humans who would be exposed to dangerous environments," he explained.
It may sound like science fiction, but who knows? If we can use Control VR gloves to send robots to the rescue, then maybe there is hope for the Holodeck after all.