- A brief history of holography
- The current state of hologram technology
- Project Starline — Google’s holographic video-calling booth
- A telepresence video booth from Logitech
- Real-time chatting with human-sized holograms
- Transforming 2D holograms to 3D
The concept of interacting with holographic representations of people we know, or beaming ourselves somewhere across the world (or the galaxy) as holograms, has captured the public imagination since the earliest, most primitive developments in holography. Depictions range from Star Trek and Star Wars to 3D displays of musicians like Tupac Shakur and ABBA — which, despite what many may think, are not true holograms — into real concert venues. The field of holography is advancing, however, and true holograms could become a part of daily life before too long. One particular area where holography has great potential is video calls. In fact, various companies are already working on technology to bring holographic video calls to the masses.
A brief history of holography
A ‘hologram’ is defined as “a three-dimensional image reproduced from a pattern of interference produced by a split coherent beam of radiation (such as a laser)”, and ‘holography’ is the technique that produces such an image. Unlike traditional 2D photographic images captured with a lens, a hologram can have properties like depth and parallax (position along two lines of sight). Origins of the field can be found in the 1940s, when Hungarian-British physicist Dennis Gabor applied concepts from X-ray microscopy to create the field of electron holography. The invention of the laser in the late 1950s enabled the birth of optical holography, where scientists in the Soviet Union and the US separately managed to record and capture 3D objects into hologram form.
The current state of hologram technology
These days, holograms are used in many fields — from engineering and healthcare to entertainment and gaming. Progress in the development of holographic technology is being made by various technology-focused organisations in the public and private sectors. The total hologram market is forecast to double in revenue from 2020 (at around $2.7 billion) to 2024 (a predicted $5.4 billion). One particular area of focus is that of holographic video calls. Similarly to how the birth of video calls introduced a whole new dimension that audio calls lacked, holographic video calls could enable a much greater degree of immersion and further break down barriers like physical distance.
Developments in virtual reality (VR) and the metaverse are also contributing to the potential for widespread use of holographic communication. The three-dimensional imaging and display technologies that power VR include ‘holographic display’, which, according to a study recently published in the scientific journal Optics Communications, “is a promising approach to providing all depth cues for the human eyes”. Alongside other technologies involved in VR, holographic display can enable 3D communication in real time, and the virtual world of the metaverse could be an ideal environment for holograms to interact with each other. While existing examples of such systems are limited, one day the technology might become widely accessible. Holographic video calls and gaming sessions could connect friends and loved ones, while live holographic presentations, remote consultations, and even collaborative projects could revolutionise the world of work.
Project Starline — Google’s holographic video-calling booth
Many different companies are developing products based on holographic technology, and it’s no surprise that tech giant Google is among these. The company’s Project Starline is a holographic video chat solution centred around a “video-calling booth that uses 3D imagery, high-resolution cameras, custom depth sensor sensors and a breakthrough light field display”. This booth enables callers to interact with each other without the need for any kind of headset. While firms like Meta are using movement-tracking cameras to create highly realistic avatars, Google’s project aims to display a true-to-life holographic representation of the user that is indistinguishable from the way they really look. If successful, such technology could “bridge the gap between in-person meetings and the less-than-ideal 2D video chats we have now”.
Project Starline is currently carrying out an early access programme, where over 100 partners from various fields are testing the booths at their offices in order to provide useful feedback to the developers. Users have so far reported that the technology “feels very real”. At this stage, it is unclear what plans Google has for the technology. While the potential exists for the technology to enter the mass market, the company seems to have stalled progress on the project, with research and development initiatives halving in September 2022. It may be the case that the booths are simply too expensive to produce and for businesses to buy — not to mention being physically large and cumbersome — for Project Starline to be a viable product. However, the project has captured the attention of many who see it as more than just “a really impressive technical demonstration”. Salesforce and WeWork have expressed particular interest in adopting Project Starline’s booths, and the technological breakthroughs that the project has made are sure to contribute significantly to the commercial holography sector as a whole.
“In today’s digital-first world, firms must provide workers with the technology and tools they need to be more productive and efficient at work… At Salesforce, we’re always looking for new ways to give our employees and customers worldwide amazing experiences. By combining real-world and virtual experiences, Project Starline could help people get along better.”Andy White, senior vice president, Salesforce
A telepresence video booth from Logitech
Google isn’t the only company developing booths for holographic video calls. Swiss consumer electronics firm Logitech has collaborated with US office furniture manufacturer Steelcase on Project Ghost — an ‘office telepresence booth’ designed to enhance remote meetings. Project Ghost was developed specifically to overcome the practical issues that many associated with Project Starline, notably the inconvenience (or even impossibility) of setting up such an unwieldy and expensive system in a normal office. In comparison, Project Ghost is supposedly easier to set up at a lower cost. The system is housed inside a comfortable semi-walled booth, and based largely around a hidden webcam and a mirror that projects video chats. Users can see the person they’re talking to ‘at full scale’, and eye contact can feel real for both callers. The developers of Project Ghost intend it to be used primarily for work purposes, such as when employees are working remotely but need to join a meeting. Although the furniture designed for Project Ghost is entirely new, the videoconferencing technology that the project uses is long-established. The ‘mirror display and hidden camera’ setup is also based on the ‘holographic’ illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost — the same concept that enabled the famous Tupac Shakur ‘hologram’ at 2012’s Coachella music festival in California, as well as ABBA’s recent Voyage residency.
Real-time chatting with human-sized holograms
US-based firm PORTL has also created a booth-sized machine for holographic video calls. This 7-foot tall and 5-foot wide machine can beam an AI-powered, 4K-resolution hologram of a real person, which users can converse with in real time, into any room. PORTL’s CEO and founder David Nussbaum describes the device as a ‘holoportation’ machine, and claims that “you can stand opposite of your loved ones and look them in the eye in their real human-sized form”. All that a user needs to send a hologram to the machine is a camera and a white background, and the machine uses embedded cameras and speakers to display the hologram. A motion capture feature also automatically records when somebody appears in the space in front of the machine, and facial recognition technology can authenticate the identity of users. What’s more, the device can also display pre-recorded holograms of real people, including historical figures. Recorded holograms can be chosen using a connected mobile app, and played at the touch of a button.
Transforming 2D holograms to 3D
US-based IKIN is another company developing a product aimed at delivering holographic video calls to various industries. The firm is working on a device that can transmit holograms to a screen that can be attached to your smartphone or tablet. The principle behind the device is to transform a 2D image into a 3D one without the need for any VR accessories. This project seems to be one of the closest to enabling convenient holographic video calls for the mass market, although the company is currently focusing on uses in fields such as industry, telemedicine, and architecture. The concept has been successfully tested with a 32-inch screen, but the company is still working on integration with mobile devices.
Holography is nothing new, although until recently it had been confined to laboratories, exclusive demonstrations, and highly-specific implementations in certain industries. However, the technology is now closer than ever before to reaching the mass market. The potential implications for communication are staggering — being able to converse in real-time with a photorealistic, life-sized hologram of a colleague, client, or loved one could almost entirely break down the barriers of physical distance. When combined with developing technologies like VR, 6G, and advanced AIs, the results could be truly mind blowing.