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Mediated sight

Rendering of the new X-59 cockpit, with the windshield replaced by a 4k screen. Image: NASA

NASA has announced working on a supersonic plane, the X-59, that will be able to cross the sound barrier (1234km/h in dry air at 20°C, an easy number to remember) without producing the sonic “bang”.  Such a plane would be able to pass the speed of sound over inhabited area without disturbing people nor breaking any window.

To make this possible they are working on a very smooth surface that can pass through the barrier created by the airplane when approaching the speed of sound, a plane with a very long conic nose, some 17 meter long, that ends up smoothly in the main fuselage. This makes it impossible to have a windshield. To provide visibility  they are placing a screen with 4k resolution in front of the pilot (see the rendering of the cockpit in the figure). The screen is connected to a camera on the tip of the plane nose continuously feeding images.

To avoid motion sickness (happeing when the brain receives sensations from the eyes that do not match with the ones created by other senses (ear and proprioceptors) the delay in the video signal shall stay below one tenth of a second and according to the trials they are able to do so (67 ms).

One may wonder what would happen if malfunction affects the video (even something as tech independent like a bird striking the video camera). NASA said there is some redundancy provided, a second camera pointing downward, and deployed during take off and landing can make up, at least partially, for the main camera. This second camera delivers high def video (not 4k) and it is not providing the same front view as the other but can help. The video is shown on a separate screen, so this provides redundancy of the screen as well.

I guess that the real redundancy is provided by flight instruments, the same that allows  the pilot to land in zero visibility.

I find this news interesting because it is a further step in mediating reality through technology, and NASA idea of a virtual window is not a first! Take a look at the clip showing virtual windows created by Emirates to provide window seats to first class passengers that are not … seated by a window!

In the next decade I expect technology to provide seamless merging of reality and virtual reality (mostly in the form of augmented reality but this latter may not necessarily take the form of a video signal overlapping the visino we get from looking at reality around us, it might be simpler to have a camera capturing the reality and a computer mixing it with the virtual one delivering a single seamless image to our eyes).  So, get ready for experiencing a new world!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.