The hologram that wasn't ... a digital projection of Tupac at Cochella. Photo: Getty Images
Everyone is fascinated with the possibilities and promises of a holographic 3D world. With major events such as Coachella and the London Olympics showing off the latest in hologram technology, it's not hard to desire the concept in theatres, shops or homes. Let's face it: who doesn't want to live in a place where holographic projections a la Star Wars communicate information?
Luckily, holographic technology is becoming much closer to entering our homes and our lives – it's a future tech that's well within our grasp. We spoke with companies planning big things in the space in just the next few years, let alone 2020. All of these exciting innovations are coming our way, and it's just the tip of the hologram iceberg.
"Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi" ... holograms have existed in science and popular fiction for many years.
The history of the hologram
Before we can understand where holographic technology is heading, there's a lot to learn about where it came from.
Holograms actually began life as a classic parlour trick known as "Pepper's Ghost" – an illusion that took advantage of a well-angled mirror to "project" the reflection of a ghost in a secret, hidden room. This simple technique, dating back to the 16th century, is still used in some capacity today, most notably within Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, where the largest Pepper's Ghost installation resides to make guests feel as though they've entered a haunted ballroom.
Some elements of Pepper's Ghost were also used to achieve arguably the most talked-about hologram of 2012, the Tupac Hologram at Coachella. Instead of a so-called "real" hologram, the people at San Diego's AV Concepts projected Tupac onto a piece of foil and utilised angled mirrors to put him on stage. Flashes of holographic images continued to crop up during major events within the past year, most notably the London 2012 Olympics and even hologram-style Beyonces during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.
However, nothing has yet to capture true hologram abilities. That is, the holograms everywhere largely are illusions rather than a native, glasses-free 3D projection or a multi-projector orchestration to produce a life-size image. But, we're well on our way to accomplishing this.
The next phase
Many companies are taking the next step towards the future of holograms, and one is the Toronto-based technology company Rose and Thistle, which is currently marketing a patented hologram technology: Holographic Paramotion.
"We've created a very rich holographic experience through the first half of 2012," says Paul Duffy, president of Rose and Thistle. "We didn't know it at the time, but no one was taking holograms and adding multiple layers of depth or integrating it all into a product."
Rather than taking advantage of hidden rooms, Holographic Paramotion relies on a proscenium-style display box to reflect elements of the hologram onto the centre of the stage. The system, called the ShowBox, can then be scaled to reflect the light sources available – as big as a movie theatre screen or as small as a television. Duffy says that the biggest challenge in developing a true hologram is surpassing the so-called "uncanny valley" to help the audience believe that the images on stage are actually real.
"If you're thinking 'where in the future is holography going?' We found it in four key domains. The first one is the most important: the projection and illumination systems that allow you to deliver or view the images," Duffy explains.
"That category of technology is undergoing an exponential growth right now – the ability to not just take the quality of the image but the brightness and illumination is increasing dramatically."
Rose and Thistle brought their product out to play, although still in beta testing, for a few big names already. One notable experience was a presentation for PBS's Quest Beyond the Stars, creating a snippet of a live holographic touring show that could explore the wonders of space via hologram. A second installation, for Canadian department store chain Holt Renfrew, showed off holographic models in the Toronto flagship outlet's display windows constantly during Fashion Week. Duffy says the goal for their products is not only quality, but consistency.
"It really allowed us to stress test this all in a live environment," Duffy explains. "It was on 24 hours per day, in full light and full dark, on a very high-traffic street near Toronto. That's another sign that this technology is really starting to come together."
This technology can be just a few years away, and Duffy says that he is also excited for the possibility of taking holograms portable. The ShowBox already has plans to be scaled into a personal, iPad-sized display piece, but the technology just isn't there yet.
"On an iPad 2 right now, it's a little weak – the power source doesn't provide the light you need," Duffy says. "But the iPad 3 is close, and as we improve the quality of tablet devices, the viewing capability is going to be strong enough that with the right lighting, you're going to get an equivalent experience on the handheld."
Holograms beyond the display
While personal holographic technologies are out of reach, there are other companies approaching a similar endgame from a different starting point. Infinite Z, the company behind 3D tablet workspace zSpace, approaches the personal hologram problem from a natural starting point – passive 3D technology. Rather than projecting the 3D system without glasses, the zSpace relies on glasses to produce the imagery. But it has a lot of holographic elements incorporated into the system to make it all feel real.
"We offer a lot of benefits of a holographic environment to the user while trying to get around the constraints that allow a true hologram to exist," says David Chavez, chief technology officer of Infinite Z.
Chavez says the key to a successful personal holographic technology, and something that is a big draw with the zSpace, is the "motion parallax", the ability for an image to react to the way that your eye is tracking in a believable way. If you move and the image moves with you, then a holographic image is performing well, but the technological features to facilitate that simple motion are still years away.
"We render the scenes based on the position of the eyes, and that's a big deal. It's a lot more straightforward to create that illusion," Chavez explains.
"Someday it'll come – today we're limited by the performance of the technology on hand. Because the requirements for tracking performance are quite high and your brain gives exactly instantaneous and accurate feedback all time, the technology has to be able to do it all without skipping."
Still, as tablets become smaller, stronger and faster, there's a possibility that they could project 3D images in some not-too-distant future. While he would not give any specifics, Chavez did say it's on their radar.
"We're going to provide these great products to meet market demand. If it happens to be in a smaller package, then that's where we'll go."
Right now, technology is not quite ready to handle the implications of a truly full-scale holographic experience – but we are closer than we ever have been before. Perhaps even in the next 10 years, we'll be viewing perfect holograms in theatres all over and watching crystal-clear projections from our tablets.
One thing is for sure – this fiction is destined to become reality.
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