Cover Story: Holograms in da house

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 22, 2021 - November 28, 2021.
Gardner speaking via PORTL Epic at a gathering of high-level hospitality executives in California (Photo by Portl)

Gardner speaking via PORTL Epic at a gathering of high-level hospitality executives in California (Photo by Portl)

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The word “hologram” brings to mind Disney’s Totally Spies cartoon series, specifically the spies’ Compowder, which serves as a holographic mobile phone. For others, it may evoke sci-fi-related references, such as those seen in Star Wars, which has arguably some of the earliest depictions of holographic tech (which did not exist when the movies were released).

But hologram tech, which is still being depicted as a high-tech futuristic tool by the entertainment industry, has already arrived. 

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have this conversation using holograms and see each other [in 3D]?” says David Nussbaum, founder of Los Angeles-based holographics company PORTL, some minutes into the interview with Digital Edge, which was carried out over Google Meet.

He has a point. The holographic tech space grew exponentially in the past two years as people sought more life-like interactions with friends and family that did not involve video conferencing on a flat screen. Truth be told, many were already suffering from screen fatigue.

The use of holograms for live interactions was a concept that came about during the pandemic. Nussbaum says that, at some point, people associated holograms with the dead, specifically, posthumous recrea­tions of celebrities and artists. 

“When you mention a hologram, they’d probably reference Michael Jackson or Tupac and, more recently, Whitney Houston. People believe holograms are to bring a dead person back and I don’t know why,” he says.

Nussbaum is referring to a holographic performance by Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, five years after his death. In 2012, a holographic Tupac Shakur took the stage at the Coachella music festival, popularising the Pepper’s Ghost magician’s illusion, which tricks audiences into thinking they are viewing a person or object rather than a simple reflection.

In October, Kanye West gave his former wife, Kim Kardashian, a birthday message from her late father, Robert Kardashian, delivered in holographic form. In July, Whitney Houston made headlines as her posthumous show, An Evening with Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Concert, was granted a residency at Harrah’s Las Vegas. 

These are just a handful of examples of people being brought back from the dead. But the market seems to be ready to use this technology in real-time with people who are still breathing to help them communicate and even travel.

Celebrities have already started using holographic technology to “beam” themselves to loved ones and events in other parts of the world. Rapper and record producer Diddy, who had business to tend to in Miami, used PORTL to project himself to his son’s birthday party in Los Angeles, where he interacted with the audience in real-time. 

Author and inspirational speaker Chris Gardner, who was played by Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, beamed in his keynote address at several TEDx talks. Now, he is an advocate of holographic tech, emphasising the financial and sustainable benefits of it, comparing the impact to if he were to jet himself to 200 engagements annually.

The focus of holographic technology is shifting, says Nussbaum, where it is no longer about putting up large holographic installations on stages, but to shrink it down to single-passenger holographic booths or small machines that can beam people wherever they need to be.

PORTL’s solution, PORTL Epic, features a sleek rectangular box with a high-resolution flat-screen monitor to receive and display a person’s hologram. The person who is being transported holographically has a studio kit featuring a camera, lighting and white backdrop setup, where he only needs to appear in front of the camera to transport himself into the seven-foot box.

An audience-facing camera is embedded in every single PORTL Epic so that the person being beamed in will be able to see through the return-feed camera. “The challenge is that nobody has ever done it before. So, we have to educate people on our product, how it works and how it’s done. We also have to find the right partners to get the message out there,” says Nussbaum.

“We reimagined what the hologram industry could look like. We created the hardware, dialled that in until people really thought it showed a beautiful, museum-quality showpiece. Then, the technology and software were pumped into it, which allows anybody to be anywhere. It is becoming a functional way of communicating and even travelling during the pandemic.”

Olaf Kwakman, managing partner of Silver Wings XR, also witnessed increased demand for holographic tech over the last two years, especially since people started suffering from screen fatigue from a surfeit of video calls.

It is normal for people to want more than what is already available in the market, says Kwakman, especially since the pandemic deprived many of physical contact and interaction. Most of Silver Wings XR’s holographic solutions were used by larger corporations, as holographic tech carries a heavy price tag of between US$40,000 (RM166,432) and US$80,000.

Recently, Silver Wings XR was part of a project to create a holographic visualisation of a company’s CEO, who organises annual events in different cities. The China-based CEO got the chance to holographically travel and interact with audiences around the world.

Holographic transportation is also making waves in the medical and operational spaces, as experts still need to meet other people in person but are unable to because of Covid-19 travel restrictions as well as for health and safety reasons.

“The demand for holographic technology has increased exponentially. But it’s important to note that there are a lot of different technologies in this space, so it very much depends on the purpose of the holographic transportation and which type of technology is suitable,” says Kwakman.

“Some of these technologies are, maybe, not as advanced as people sometimes think. In movies, it shows that you can interact with holograms, which is already possible. But a lot of holographic technology is also more about creating an illusion.”

In the retail space, holograms are gaining popularity as a way to interact with customers. Timo Yorsh, regional manager for Southeast Asia at HYPERVSN, says in the pre-pandemic world, there was hardly any demand for hologram tech, let alone realistic, human and live solutions. But more companies invested in the technology as they began to understand the need for life-like interactions.

As the technology in the space became more sophisticated, so did customer demands. Yorsh says the company could not ignore the evolution and developed a holographic human solution using its 3D holographic devices. 

He says one customer plans to use the technology to provide the real-time presence of its salespeople to interact with customers. The salesperson will operate like a call centre and be beamed from one location to the next to tend to customers, optimising his functions, as he appears when summoned.

“The number of use cases in which we can apply our technology has grown tremendously since we started. We have also advanced our technology to be able to support live video streams, which will be available soon,” says Yorsh.

HYPERVSN’s 3D hologram devices have two components — the holographic display and the management software. The holographic display looks like a fan, with its rays lined with rows of LEDs. The rays spin really fast, too fast to be seen by the human eye, but a floating image will be visible. Yorsh says the management software allows companies to build networks of holographic devices and manage the content on them in real-time or schedule media playlists and manage them remotely.

Nussbaum: [Holographic technology] is becoming a functional way of communicating and even travelling during the pandemic (Photo by Portl)

Is this real or just a dream?

A clear distinction needs to be made between a holographic illusion and a true hologram. Kwakman says the latter is a 3D visualisation of something or someone that is in front of you and can be viewed at all angles. Most solutions, however, offer a holographic optical illusion.

Kwakman says that, in most cases, it does not really matter whether a hologram is 2D or 3D because, at the end of the day, people interact while facing the object or person. “Imagine if I were standing in front of you in a room. You’d want to walk around me and see me from all sides. But if you stood 50m away, you would be looking at me from one side and it doesn’t matter anymore whether I’m 2D or 3D,” he explains.

“A lot of the holographic illusion is actually a 2D projection done smartly and presented in a way in which the lighting and background is adjusted to give the illusion of 3D visualisation.”

Kwakman believes augmented reality (AR) is part of the holographic experience, as it involves 3D projection. Microsoft Hololens, an enterprise-ready holographic solution, is an example of how true holograms can be used for communication, whether for social or work purposes. 

He says: “The Hololens glasses are transparent, so you can see the real world while projecting other objects or people into that space to interact with the real world. The power of mixed reality can really be harnessed when combined with holograms, where we will have the ability to add and remove information in that space.”

This holographic table is a solution offered by Silver Wings XR, where users wear a headset to interact with the hologram (Pictures by Silver Wings XR)
This is how the HYPERVSN Solo 3D holographic devices look when not in motion

The concept of a digital twin, that is, a virtual representation that serves as a real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process, is another development in the holographic space. 

Kapil Chhabra, founder and CEO of Silver Wings XR, explains that people can use a digital twin to convene online in an augmented or virtual reality world to interact with other digital twins. He says a lot of time is being put into the research and development of digital twins to allow the 3D reconstruction of a person in real-time.

“The latest iPhones have LIDAR technology, which allows us to capture space and depth easily. The availability of this technology in smartphones points to a greater use of AR technology through our phones, which can also capture a digital twin of yourself or any space you’re in,” he says.

LIDAR stands for “light detection and ranging”, and has been around for a while. It uses lasers to ping off objects and return to the source of the laser, measuring distance by timing the trajectory of the light pulse. 

The goal is to make a person as realistic as possible at the location they are being beamed into. PORTL’s Nussbaum says that while it is normal for some customers to request to make their hologram taller or thinner, they generally prefer to keep the hologram or digital clone lifelike.

“If you’re 4ft 11in in real life, I will want you to be 4ft 11in when you’re beamed because I want you to look and appear like yourself on the other side. The people there know you and want to see you in your true form,” he says.

Endless potential of holographic technology

Facebook’s rebranding to Meta attracted a lot of criticism from tech players worldwide. The sentiment on the metaverse, that CEO Mark Zuckerberg said would soon be built, has been predominantly negative, but this development might just be a game changer for holographic technology.

HYPERVSN’s Yorsh explains that the metaverse’s goal is to be the internet of virtual presence, signalling the possibility of hybrid living in the next decade or two. “Somewhere along the line, we will be able to speak to each other holographically in real-time and someone can join in the conversation whenever they please using whatever device they have, just like how it is with video conferencing today,” he says.

“This, I foresee, is the goal of the metaverse, where eventually we will be able to buy groceries in a digital shop, for example.”

Facebook also partnered with luxury eyewear brand, Ray-Ban, to develop Ray-Ban Stories, an immersive wearable eyewear that will allow users to take pictures and videos hands-free. Kwakman believes this partnership indicates that the future of holographic technology is in wearables.

He says: “Now, it’s photos and videos, but the next step is AR. The challenge is to make it affordable to everyone as well as easy to use because compared to the Hololens, Ray-Ban Stories are not as bulky and can be worn all the time.

“It’s a computer that we wear constantly, and that future is not that far away. A little more work needs to be done to allow people to interact in real-time in an AR environment.”

Yorsh believes that the technology will still be used posthumously, especially to deliver messages or convey last wishes after death. It may seem like a morbid use of the technology, he adds, especially since the deceased would need to pre-record it, but there is really no denying that this is the future of communication.

“Every generation has different means of communicating, which they adapted socially and personally. There was a time when it was normal to pick up a phone and call someone but, now, people have to send a text asking if it’s okay to call. So, there will be a day when holographic communication will be so normal and the society that grows up with it will adapt to it physically and mentally,” he says.

Meanwhile, PORTL’s Nussbaum has been busy developing a more accessible holographic device called PORTL Mini. He says it will be the size of a desktop computer and will project a person at the scale of their normal size.

“It will look like you, sound like you and have shadows like you’re really in the box. Starting early next year, people will be able to have these in their homes,” he says.

“As for the technology seen in movies, where people are projected out of something into an empty space in front of them by just hitting a button, we’re years away from that. That will be cool and I hope that I’m the guy who does that because it will be pretty great.”