400 Years of Holograms: The History of Illusion
Original article taken from popularmechanics.com
Technology that allows people, places, and things to appear in three dimensions is changing the way our armed forces operate, the way people elect their leaders, and the way entertainers—alive and dead—bring us joy. Meet the people on the front lines of the other virtual reality.
The dinosaur expert leans forward on a large L-shaped sofa in a room where blackout curtains erase the Beverly Hills sunshine. Two chandeliers gradually dim, and after a short silence a velociraptor appears on a stage scarcely twenty feet away, stalking back and forth, gliding on springy hind legs, tail whipsawing. You can’t hear any thump of footsteps, or anything at all, but still: The thing is not a flat image beamed from a projector but a creature with depth and heft and teeth. A physical presence.
Luis Chiappe, a balding man with a beard going gray, is the director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a 102-year-old institution that protects specimens dating back 4.5 billion years and that recently opened a 14,000-foot exhibition space called Dinosaur Hall. Over the past twenty years he has conducted fieldwork in Mongolia and Kazakhstan and many other places around the world. In the dark he is visible only by the reflection of the velociraptor in his glasses, so it’s difficult to gauge his reaction. But he says, quietly, “That is amazing.”
After a few moments a man named Alki David appears onstage, assuming a kind of master-of-ceremonies role. He has close-cropped graying hair and a pudgy, impish middle-aged face. The dinosaur dissolves, giving way to a series of celebrities alive and dead. Here is Ray Charles, fingers somersaulting across the keys of a piano, feet stomping. Here’s Jimmy Stewart in a fedora. Eventually the lights rise, and David “Nuzzy” Nussbaum, who stands next to the couch through the presentation, asks Chiappe if he’d like to stand next to the dinosaur. Nussbaum is vice president of sales at Hologram USA, the company that last year began unleashing holograms into the world in various forms and is holding this exhibition for Chiappe today in a bid for his business.
“Sure,” Chiappe says.
HERE IS RAY CHARLES, FINGERS SOMERSAULTING ACROSS THE KEYS OF A PIANO, FEET STOMPING
He climbs to the stage, where the newly conjured velociraptor begins prowling behind him, but he is immediately disoriented. He can no longer see the creature: The hologram is visible only from the front of the stage. He crab-shuffles uncertainly back and forth. Nussbaum coaches him to watch a monitor stationed to the side that shows the dinosaur, but Chiappe just keeps gazing around.
Nussbaum walks him back down and suggests that the museum could hire Hologram USA to set up a stage like this one to bring T. rexes to life in the Dinosaur Hall. “What’s great about this,” he says, “is that you could have kids at the museum take pictures with dinosaurs.”
Chiappe considers this, but Alki David isn’t done. “Bring up the secretaries,” he says, grinning, into a two-way radio.
The lights dim again. Onstage appear two blond women in the midst of what might best be described as the latter stages of a gentlemen’s-club-type presentation. An awkward quiet descends as the women writhe through the air. Finally, with mock outrage, David shouts, “Take them off!” Outside, Chiappe looks dazzled, maybe a little bewildered, as he blinks in the sun.
An Italian scientist named Giambattista della Porta, inventor of the camera obscura, first describes creating a three-dimensional, Oculus Rift–like effect in a paper titled “How we may see in a chamber things that are not.” The viewer enters a darkened space and peers into a looking glass. The staging actually features a second reflective surface inside, set up so that when it is illuminated it reflects pictures of statues and furniture in a way that makes the viewer feel as if he were actually inside a room among full-size objects.
A Liverpool, England–born engineer named Henry Dircks picks up the concept almost three centuries later after noticing that glass is both transparent and reflective. Through experimentation he finds that if he props a sheet of plate glass at a 45-degree angle he can bounce an image off of it that appears to be floating. He names the effect the Dircksian Phantasmagoria and presents it to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dircks has no luck selling his effect to theaters, but a scientist and lecturer named John Henry Pepper figures out how to modify the setup for the ghosts in a performance of Dickens’s The Haunted Man. Although he tries repeatedly to give Dircks credit, “Pepper’s ghost” becomes a worldwide sensation, and the name endures to this day.
Pepper’s ghost turns up repeatedly at fairgrounds, inside haunted houses, and in magic shows—but hits its pop-culture apex when the Walt Disney Company deploys the effect in the Haunted Mansion ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, where riders see ghosts flying around the Grand Hall.
George Lucas unleashes the first of his Star Wars movies, which features actress Carrie Fisher’s character Princess Leia as a foot-tall hologram projected by a quirky droid named R2-D2. It is both a cool trick and a radical vision of the future—suggesting that we might one day drop in on each other in some beamed-in, particles-of-light, there-but-not-there fashion.
Executives at the Ford Motor Company are frustrated by the cost of creating prototypes for concept cars. They wonder: What if they could study a hologram of a vehicle instead? Ford approaches the MIT Media Lab, where Stephen Benton, who invented the rainbow hologram that appears on most credit cards today, works. The question leads three MIT researchers to form Zebra Imaging in 1996 in Austin, Texas.
“WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT THIS IS THAT YOU COULD HAVE KIDS AT THE MUSEUM TAKE PICTURES WITH DINOSAURS.”
Zebra prints 3D files onto a polymer sheet that resembles a photographic negative. Each sheet contains hundreds of thousands of hogels—short for “holographic element.” Think of hogels as similar to pixels, only each hogel is actually a single point of view of the image being printed. When light bounces off the polymer, the hogels act as tiny projectors, interfering with the light in a way that makes the image appear to rise off the surface and take on depth and breadth.
German inventor Uwe Maass creates a three-dimensional experience like that in movies, only without the Clark Kent spectacles. “I started wondering, what kind of technology can I use to get rid of the glasses?” he says. He winds up with a twenty-first–century update on Pepper’s ghost, his stage set featuring a 3D projector and LED lighting—and to replace the glass, a special polymer foil material that’s invisible at a 45-degree angle but still reflects 60 percent of the light. The foil is only one millimeter thick, so it can be set up on a scale much larger than any sheet of glass safely could be, and can be easily rolled up and transported too. He debuts the setup, which he names Eyeliner, for an event by jewelry company Swarovski in Austria that features flying crystals.
The United States Army becomes Zebra Imaging’s primary customer. The Army orders a new kind of map—2 x 3–foot sheets that troops in the field can unroll and shine a flashlight on to reveal a hologram of the terrain in front of them. The map allows them to visualize exactly what lies ahead—how steep the topography, where they would be vulnerable to ambush. “Personnel rotated people through very quickly, and this helped orient them to the new digs,” says Rick Black, Zebra’s director of government solutions, who during a twenty-six-year Army career helped provide geospatial intelligence support for troops, including the new maps. “They were able to visualize in full 3D what their environment was going to be like.” Troops can also use the maps to consult with locals about where they’re going, and can draw missions on them with dry-erase tools and later wipe them clean.
Multiple studies demonstrate that people process information more easily and understand it more quickly when they see it in three-dimensional form. The Medical Simulation Research Branch of the Army Research Laboratory published a study involving two groups of medical students that were each presented with materials on the anatomy of the human heart. One set depicted the valves and vascular structures in traditional textbook format, while the other showed the heart in holographic form. The students were tested after studying the materials, and the ones who had looked at holograms remembered more about the heart’s anatomy with less effort.
Zebra Imaging provided more than 14,000 holographic maps to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade, and during that time the technology improved markedly, according to Zebra marketing manager Eric Doane. By the time the program wound down, the time required to create a map had dropped from five days to ninety minutes.
Maass creates a hologram of the late hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur to appear onstage at the Coachel-la Music Festival with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. The illusion is so lifelike that it makes Princess Leia’s hologram seem quaint in its grainy jitteriness. A video of the event generates 15 million YouTube views in forty-eight hours.
Maass, looking for a business partner in the United States, connects with Johnny Fratto, a talent manager who frequently appears on Howard Stern’s radio show. Fratto arranges a meeting with Alki David at David’s production studio. David instantly loves the hologram technology, but Maass worries that David lacks space for the Eyeliner setup. Maass “looks around and says, ‘There’s not enough room, you really can’t do anything,’ ” Fratto says. “So we’re standing there talking, and, I swear on my kids, all of a sudden the goddamn sledgehammer comes through the wall. Alki is on the other side of the wall with a sledgehammer.”
Hologram USA is born. “It’s very simple, age-old, snake-oil type of stuff,” David says. “But done with twenty-first-century technology, it’s mind-blowing.” Fratto, who is a partner in Maass’s business, negotiates a piece of the business for himself: Holografixxx will provide holograms for adult entertainment, though Maass says he may curb that kind of usage for fear of losing other kinds of business.
Narendra Modi enters the race for prime minister of India. His polling numbers hover at around 34 percent, not a promising start. He hires Maass’s company, MDH Musion, and begins delivering speeches at as many as a hundred rallies at once by hologram. His three-dimensional doppelgänger speaks in more than 1,400 locations, reaching, by some estimates, 14 million additional voters.
“When people got word that he was projecting himself as a hologram to these places, he started to generate enormous crowds—30,000, 40,000 people per location,” says Nussbaum. Modi wins the election, garnering a rare plurality with 53 percent of the vote, and an Indian political observer opines that holograms call to mind “the Hindu mythology, where the God was omnipresent.” In the United States holograms begin appearing in unlikely venues. In May a Michael Jackson hologram performs at the Billboard Music Awards five years after his death. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who has spent three years in asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, appears in September in front of nearly 1,000 people in Nantucket, Massachusetts, as a hologram. Sitting on a stool identical to the one his flesh-and-blood host occupies, Assange answers questions from the crowd and attempts, at the end, a hologram-to-human high five.
And in November Jimmy Kimmel hosts his late-night talk show in Los Angeles while simultaneously appearing by hologram at the Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. “We were aware that the technology was out there because of the cool pop cultural moments that had occurred,” says Doug DeLuca, co-executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Kimmel obviously couldn’t be in both places at once, so the hologram “seemed like an innovative and elegant solution.” Nussbaum says Hologram USA is building an installation for Jimmy Kimmel Live so the host “can beam people in for interviews at any time,” making him the first major television entertainer to embrace the technology.
David says part of his vision for Hologram USA is that no celebrity ever has to die. The company is working on deals with major theaters—Nussbaum mentions the Apollo in New York City as an example—to create permanent installations. (The Apollo did not reply to an email seeking comment.) He recently reached agreements with the estates of Ray Charles, Liberace, and Buddy Holly, among others, to create live performances. Liberace’s estate was the first to sign on for appearances at a Las Vegas site to be announced. “The show will have all the glitz and glamour and razzle-dazzle of a real Liberace show, with the jewels and cars and showgirls,” Nussbaum says. And the show will be interactive—if someone hollers out a request, hologram Liberace can (if it’s in the preprogrammed database) play it. If someone in the audience is celebrating a birthday, hologram Liberace can—through some technological sleight of hand Nussbaum declined to reveal—invite her onstage, kiss her on the cheek, and hand her a bouquet of flowers. “They will be real flowers,” Nussbaum says.
Hologram USA licensed its technology to Universal for a ride that opens this summer at Universal Studios Hollywood based on the Fast and the Furious movie franchise. “It’s the next generation of entertainment,” David says. “I’ve been in the media space and the entertainment space since I left film school, which was in ’92, and I’ve never ever seen anything attract A-list talent the way this does. We’ve had Al Pacino banging on the door twice in a week to see the technology. We contacted Alicia Keys and said we’re doing Ray Charles [resurrected as a hologram]. It was, ‘I have to be in it.’ ” (Keys, who previously appeared with a Sinatra hologram, declined through management to discuss the event. Pacino did not respond to a request for comment.)
Others are finding more potentially meaningful ways to use the technology. A group protesting new laws curbing freedom of speech in Spain faced steep fines for gathering in front of the Parliament—so they took to the streets as holograms. Videos of the ghostly sign-waving crowd torpedoed around the Internet.
In Austin, Texas, Zebra won a bid from DARPA, the military’s research-and-development wing, to create the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display, a full-color holographic image that can rotate in space. The company has discussed providing holographic maps of desert regions along the U.S. border in Texas and Arizona to Customs and Border Protection agents, Doane says. The Federal Emergency Management Agency might eventually use the maps for disaster response.
2016 and beyond
Could Narendra Modi’s idea be repeated here, so that a presidential candidate might stump as a hologram in New Hampshire while shaking hands in person in Iowa? Maass says a team from Hillary Clinton’s campaign visited David’s Beverly Hills studio last year and seemed intrigued. “I’m pretty sure she’s going to go for it,” Maass says. “If Hillary does it and she wins, then it’s going to be very easy to have it be seen as a tool.” (The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Maass says he’s spoken with national political leaders on several continents. “The use of it in politics is phenomenal,” David says. “Whoever embraces it for 2016 will win. We are kingmakers here.”
The campaigns are, predictably, more circumspect. Tim Miller, communications director for Jeb Bush, says he has no hologram plans yet but adds: “We are committed as an organization to leveraging technology, so you never know.”
Scott Goodstein, founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, was the external online director for President Obama during his 2008 campaign, so he knows something about squeezing votes out of technology-based tools. He says that based on what happened in India, presidential campaigns might look at the hologram technology—but the high-tech illusion won’t be enough to make much difference on its own. “Will holograms get people to pay more attention to a candidate’s message?” Goodstein says. “That to me is the big question.”
“WHOEVER EMBRACES IT FOR 2016 WILL WIN. WE ARE KINGMAKERS HERE.”
Regardless, Maass and David will keep looking for new venues for their hologram experience. Founders of the National Comedy Center, set to open in August 2016 in Jamestown, New York, Lucille Ball’s hometown, didn’t want a museum or hall of fame. They wanted a place where people could experience comedy—where the world’s greatest comedians could come to life, even the dead ones. Chairman Tom Benson says he discovered Hologram USA’s website. “I thought, I hope it’s as good in person as it looks online,” he says. “When I saw it and realized what it could mean to us, a lightbulb went off.”
The NCC will feature as its cornerstone attraction a virtual comedy club where visitors can watch holograms of iconic comedians like George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield perform classic sketches. “It will be an area where people can suspend their disbelief,” Benson says, “and experience routines as if they were there.”
A Ronald Reagan hologram in his presidential library? That one is in development, Nussbaum says. (The library did not respond to a request for comment.)
Zebra Imaging is working on what Doane calls “real-time collaborative holographic visualization,” but what might simply be called holograms you can play with. Picture the old science-fiction-movie trope in which a character alters a holographic image hovering in the air with the swipe of a finger. Zebra is working on versions in which someone sitting at a computer could draw a graphic on or otherwise manipulate a 4 x 6–foot hologram projected onto a wall.
Zebra suddenly has a growing roster of competitors—particularly in the realm of medical imaging. Holography is capable of showing patient organs and bones with greater precision and accuracy than conventional two-dimensional imaging tools like ultrasound—and it could also help doctors pinpoint issues in intricate, multifaceted organs. A California startup named EchoPixel created a software platform, True 3D Viewer, for use in diagnostics and surgical prep. RealView Imaging generates real-time holograms that can be updated digitally via a stylus. If the Food and Drug Administration approves it, the device could allow surgeons to generate a hologram of a patient’s heart to help them visualize how best to proceed with an operation. Nanolive’s 3D Cell Explorer generates stereoscopic images of tissue at the cellular level—a technology that may help researchers better grasp how diseases interact with the body.
Some of the ideas flying around make you feel both the wonder and the consternation that Luis Chiappe felt in the presence of that dinosaur. The technology might be limited only to whatever the imagination can come up with—including extending, in an ephemeral way, our own lives. Nussbaum recently worked with a wealthy industrialist in his nineties to create a hologram that would allow the man to give his own eulogy. But before they could make it happen, the man died, and the eulogizing was left to humans.