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Dancing to the Fusionopolis beat

The roof garden at Fusionopolis

By Michael Banks in Singapore

It is not every day that I get to dance with the popstar Shakira, but that is what I did this morning. Well, in the world of virtual reality at least.

Today I visited what is known as the Fusionopolis complex here in Singapore. The centre, which consists of three separate towers, each 100 m tall, contains government-funded research institutes, international companies and a range of facilities such as a gym, a theatre and restaurants – all under one roof.

The idea of Fusionopolis is to attract multinational companies from all over the world as well as local firms to establish a research and development base in the country.

There are six government-funded applied research institutes that will eventually be housed in Fusionopolis, which are each encouraged to collaborate and share their facilities with companies who put a base there.

Venturing into Fusionopolis this morning did feel a little like taking a trip into the future. I first visited FusionWorld, which showcases some of the applications that have emerged from research carried out by the six institutes.

One example was the so-called “transparent self-cleaning windows” – essentially glass coated with a substance that reacts with dirt and grease, turning it into something that is easily washed away when it rains.

But then the tour turned to more dreamier concepts. Indeed, one involved sleep itself – researchers have developed a sensor that can be put into a mattress that is sensitive enough to detect breathing and whether someone moves around in the bed. One application for this is in hospitals where an alarm can be sent to a doctor or nurse if a patient stops breathing.

I will leave it to your imagination to picture the “demonstration home”, which included a kitchen that can tell you when you run out of eggs or if they are out of date, a toilet that can diagnose ailments, or a computer display that can be controlled with a laser pointer.

By the end, Fusionopolis had a slight whiff of Jurassic Park about it and I thought that at any moment they would pull away the curtains to reveal tiny dinosaurs walking around in a pen. But maybe that was my imagination running away with me.

One of my next stops in Fusionopolis was the Institute for Infocomm Research, where researchers are developing new wireless network protocols as well as new methods of data compression for audio files.

The next phase of Fusionopolis

In one room they have been developing a virtual reality system that can process a person’s movements and then display that action through a computer-generated figure on a 3D screen.

The perfect demonstration of such a technology is, of course, dancing. So after some persuasion I stepped (or was forced) onto the dance floor where I “threw some shapes”.

The system works by picking up movements with a camera, which then sends a signal to the computer that immediately renders the 3D figure to copy your dance moves (in my case the figure was Shakira, but you could select other characters).

After taking off my dancing shoes, we moved quickly to another virtual-reality room. Unfortunately, I did not get to test the “tennis simulation room” where players can run around (it even has artificial turf) wearing 3D glasses and pretending to hit a virtual tennis ball at the screen, which itself covers the whole wall.

Apparently the system was being upgraded so that it can handle two players instead of just one. I was told by Susanto Rahardja, director of research of the Infocomm institute, that the system was sensitive enough to detect whether your wrist movement would put top-spin on the ball.

Fusionopolis is certainly a vibrant place and you get the sense that there is a lot of excitement about the project, which is expected to be fully complete by the end of the decade once all six institutes are housed there.

Indeed, companies are flocking to join the institute, including computer giant HP, which announced In January that it would open a research centre in Fusionopolis. Two other buildings are currently being constructed for Fusionopolis in what is known as phase 2A and phase 2B, which will be able to house more companies and facilities.

Overall the technology and research on show was quite impressive. Indeed, when browsing the glossy brochures after my visit I was almost expecting to see videos and hear audio straight from the pages. I didn’t, of course, but possibly that is something the Fusionopolis researchers are working on right at this minute.

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