We all want Star Trek’s holodeck. And we’re all going to keep waiting for that, because frankly, most of what makes the Star Trek holodeck awesome is probably impossible.
Or, at least at our current stage of technology, wildly improbable.
Particularly without wearing TV screens centimeters from our eyes.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have 3D visual holographic presence in places where we are not physically present. And one NYC startup is enabling that future right now, with a shipping product that at least one of my has-every-tech-gadget-possible friends says is the best thing he’s ever seen.
It’s been 15 years in the making.
And if you can believe the company behind the product, it’s as revolutionary as the transition from still photography to motion video.
Looking Glass Factory founder Shawn Frayne started building holographic technology at eight or nine years old after seeing Marty McFly getting gobbled up by a holographic shark in Back to the Future II. And he never really stopped. One of the reasons why is what changes in our experience when 2D becomes 3D … when flat becomes dimensional.
Real, in a sense.
Realer, if I can say that, than flat photos or videos.
Listen to the interview behind this story in the TechFirst podcast:
“How we remember folks in our lives that are still here and also folks who are not here anymore, I think, is something that a new interface naturally plays a role in,” Frayne told me in a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “My brother Ryan, he passed away a few years ago. When he was still around … one of the things that I had wanted to do was to capture a video message from him to his recently-born daughter.”
The technology wasn’t quite there yet.
He wasn’t able to capture that precisely how he wanted.
But that connection with people who aren’t physically present — and perhaps can’t be physically present ever again — is what drove him to create a new kind of screen.
The result is the Looking Glass, which Frayne says is the world’s first holographic interface that you can use to engage with a world of 3D content without needed to put on an augmented reality or virtual reality headset. There’s a high-def 8” display for portraits and personal use, a 4K 16” secondary computer display, and “the world’s highest-resolution lightfield 32” display,” an 8K holographic screen for group work and presenting. Surrounding that is a software platform for putting your own photos from your Mac or PC onto Looking Glass, and a community of holographic application providers.
(The Looking Glass displays are hard to show accurately in a two-dimensional photo: play the video at the top of this article to about the 20-second mark to see it in action.)
This is a big deal, says Frayne.
“There was a time, a hundred plus years ago, where folks had memories and illustrations of imagined futures that they could see in photographs and in paintings, but … they were not alive in the way that things are alive in the real world,” Frayne says. “Then somebody came along and put 12 of those pictures in sequence in a second and they repeated that, and then a new medium of film, was born. And that became closer to life, closer to what we see around us. And the jump from flat media, flat computing devices, flat display to spatial systems like the Looking Glass, is at least as big a jump as the jump from photograph to film.”
The realness of 3D stems from how it occurs in reality, and how it’s re-created in holography.
Standard two-dimensional computer or phone displays, like the one you’re reading on right now, shine with points of light. The light is directed primarily in one direction, toward you, and the light has basically two properties, Frayne says: intensity and color.
That’s not like the real world.
Light in the real world has those properties as well, of course, but light that we see outdoors, in our homes, or in our workplaces adds a third property: directionality. This kind of light doesn’t originate in a single plane. It doesn’t aim primarily in a single direction. It comes from all directions and bounces off in all directions. It refracts through glass and reflects off mirrors.
The Looking Glass 8K product replicates this with 100 million points of light.
And it’s essential for 3D imagery and its accompany sense of reality.
“That gives things it’s dimensionality … it gives the world specular detail when you see the glint off of someone’s eye or off of a river,” says Frayne. “That’s real because it’s three-dimensional, it’s specular.”
Seeing holographic images of loved ones or beloved locations is one use. Another, especially for the larger Looking Glass products, is working together with others in 3D spaces.
“One of the greatest benefits of the Looking Glass today is that you can collaborate more effectively around 3D content with someone standing right next to you in a work context,” Frayne says. “And that’s already being extended in the hybrid office situation that most of us are in now and expect to be … for the foreseeable future.”
That might be a molecular model of a drug or a 3D representation of a new product that people can engage with socially, virtually touch by reaching their hands into the Looking Glass displays, and collaborate around. And maybe that’s a 3D model of your face and/or body in your colleague’s office halfway around the world, and hers in yours, as you work together.
“That’s going to take another step in the not-too-distant future where I can have synchronous communication, so I can also be there with my colleagues represented in a holographic video call and what have you,” says Frayne.
“So, that is much, much, much closer than I think most folks realize.”
Read More:This No-Headset Holographic Display Enables 3D Presence, Remotely