A man and a woman wearing virtual reality headsets looking at a virtual representation of a city

The future of holographic technology will flip almost every industry on its head

  • 3D holograms have already brought celebs like Frank Sinatra and Tupac Shakur back to life
  • Holographic callers popping out of your phone screen: the future of smartphones?
  • True holograms give medical professionals a real sense of the human anatomy
  • Holographic technology is a game changer, set to revolutionise many industries

With visual tech having evolved from huge box sets to high-definition flat screens, 4K, ultra HD and even credit card-thin, flexible televisions, it looks like we may soon get rid of screens altogether and use holograms instead. This sounds like science fiction but the reality of it is actually just around the corner.

Throughout the history of science fiction and video gaming, we’ve seen holograms in various shapes and sizes. In movies like Star Wars, Minority Report and series like Bones, people interact with them to manipulate images, maps, graphs and data. Somehow, holographic technology has always seemed too futuristic to ever exist outside movies and games. We are however much farther along with this technology than most people think. In fact, we can already touch 3D laser holograms. And they can respond.

3D holograms have already brought celebs like Frank Sinatra and Tupac Shakur back to life

In the entertainment industry, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur have at some point all been virtually resurrected as a type of hologram. With this technology continuously developing, we may soon see Whitney Houston perform ‘live on stage’ or Freddy Mercury tour with Queen again. Bands could give concerts at various venues around the world simultaneously, and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis could even perform on stage together. Two rival companies, Pulse Evolution and Hologram USA, are already very involved with future computer-generated performances of artists that are no longer among us in person. In fact, there are many signs that digital versions of entertainers or any humans will become increasingly common in the future.

The hologram technology currently used in entertainment does not yet produce genuine holograms, which are fully 3D light forms. Most of today’s holograms are basically a modern version of the optical illusion called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, 150-year old technology that, in simple terms, reflects a 2D image through a piece of see-through plastic. Although photo-realistic animations of dead celebrities are becoming increasingly believable, the challenge is that hologram projection technology – which produces images that can be seen from multiple angles – is not quite as evolved as we would like it to be. Also, for a hyper-realistic projection you need to start off with high-resolution 3D images, which are generally not available of dead celebs.

Michael Jackson standing on stage with sunglasses on and sparks flying in the background
In the entertainment industry, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur have at some point all been virtually resurrected as a type of hologram.

Holographic callers popping out from your phone screen: the future of smartphones?

Researchers at the Human Media Lab at the Queen’s University in Canada recently showcased their new holographic tech: HoloFlex, a flexible holographic phone with an OLED display that might just be the future of smartphones. With the HoloFlex, you’ll no longer need devices like 3D glasses; the holograms can be viewed by bending and tilting the screen to get the optimum angle. This is how it works: the display of the phone is covered with tens of thousands of fisheye lenses. These lenses bend the light from the screen, as if the image is projected through a glass ball. As you change the viewing angle, the curves of the lenses show different parts of the image by dispersing the light in multiple directions, creating a stereoscopic image that appears like a hologram, quite literally popping out from the screen. This new tech takes viewing photos or playing games to a whole new 3D level.

Then there’s the bending feature of the phone, which is more than just a novelty. It enables the user to interact with whatever is visible on the screen in a third dimension, such as during holographic video calls. When the display is bent, callers actually pop out of the screen and can look around each other, their images rendered perfectly from every angle. Although the actual screen of the HoloFlex is 1080 pixels, after viewing the images through the fisheye lenses you are left with only 160 x 104 pixels. But be that as it may, with HoloFlex, Skyping or video gaming will literally take you into a new dimension and will never be the same again.

Chinese smartphone manufacturer Takee Technology has also developed a holographic smartphone, the Estar Takee 1. It was released at the end of 2014 and is quite different from the HoloFlex. It catches the eye movements of the user with its front camera, enabling the user to view a 3D holographic effect from various angles. By adding an additional shell with four extra cameras to the device, it can recognise the user’s gestures, enabling him or her to swipe in the air to navigate through screens. It’s the same approach taken by the Amazon’s Fire Phone and a similar feature is available on the Galaxy Note 3. The Takee 1 however takes the holographic effect and moves it beyond just the interface; it also applies it to movies, games, video calls and other features.

True holograms give medical professionals a real sense of the human anatomy

From the above examples we can see how holographic technology has the potential to revolutionise telecommunication and gaming. Another sector where it could make waves is the medical industry, not only in terms of educational applications but also for diagnostics and surgery. Up until recently, medical professionals have had to work with flat 2D images from MRI and CT scans. One of the challenges, however, is that it’s extremely laborious and time consuming to create 3D visualisations from these 2D images. This makes treatment and diagnostic decisions based on these rather challenging, as their accuracy is often questionable. But rendering these 2D images into 3D floating projections will revolutionise the way medical professionals plan and carry out their treatments and surgeries. The technology will enable doctors to zoom in and out of the images to get a better view of parts that are unclear in the initial scans.

There are several companies that produce true hologram systems that are specifically targeted at the medical sector. One of them, recognised by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011, is Zebra Imaging, which produce the ZScape – a table-top style holographic display system. The ZScape is an excellent alternative in situations where there’s a lack of cadavers for medical students to dissect. The system allows students to walk around the entire body and shift through skin layers, muscles, the cardiovascular system and the skeleton. Last year, in an effort to get their tech installed in various medical schools, Zebra Imaging partnered with Zygote Media Group, who owns one of the most extensive collections of 3D medical and anatomy models in the world.

Another company is EchoPixel, who produce the True 3D Viewer (t3D), a software system that converts 2D images to stereoscopic 3D images. The system makes it possible for medical professionals in diagnostics, surgical planning and interventional radiology to ‘cut’ virtual tissue, organs and other body parts at various angles. This enables radiologists and surgeons to create an unlimited number of cross sections and to manipulate the image in such a way that abnormal tissue growth in an organ can be identified. So far, the True 3D Viewer has only been used during studies at Stanfor, UCSF and Cleveland Clinic, but now that the FDA has approved the system, EchoPixel is aiming to expand fast.


What’s next? Holograms you can touch?

The possibility to view holographic objects floating in mid-air and walking around them is already an incredible technological achievement, but there’s more. A team of researchers from the Digital Nature Group (DNG) at Japan’s University of Tsukuba created a system of holograms you can touch and interact with. A hologram of a yellow ball, for instance, could sense where your hand is and bounce off of it. The team has managed to make physical interaction with a hologram possible by using lasers, lenses, mirrors and smart programming. Air molecules are basically zapped with the focused energy of the lasers to create tiny floating pockets of plasma light shapes of 1cm³. Due to the shortness of the laser bursts, the holograms are safe to touch and actually ‘only’ feel like something between static electricity and sandpaper. The next phase is to increase the size of the holograms and to use other elements besides air. Of course the technology is still in its infancy and there’s a long way to go. But if the scientists manage to make the holograms bigger and more varied in shape, there are no limits to how they could be used in the future. Think touching animals on a holographic safari, interactive menus at your favourite restaurant or ticking off checklists floating above your desk.

Holographic technology is a game changer, set to revolutionise many industries

Holographic technology is set to become a huge game changer in many industries and has the power to significantly impact our daily lives. We’ve only discussed a few examples in this article but the potential applications are near endless; think real estate, space research, 3D mapping technologies, architecture and interior decorating, emergency assistance in remote areas, telemedicine, manufacturing, remote video conferencing and many more.

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