Feature Story

Taking 3D to the Next Level

Recent Advances in Simpler and Cheaper Holography Could Bring Technology to Everyday Communications

February 14, 2011

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

In late January, a three-dimensional image of Princess Leia appeared at an engineering conference in San Francisco. The red, fuzzy avatar didn't look as realistic as the projection of Princess Leia in 1977's Star Wars, but it may prove a lot more important.  The image created in San Francisco was a true hologram, not a studio special effect.  It was created using cheap, off-the-shelf equipment. And it may point the way toward holograms someday becoming a commonplace form of communication.

A hologram is very different from the 3-D images that appear in movies or, increasingly, on TV.  Those are images on a flat screen that use optical tricks to create the illusion, sometimes a very good illusion, of depth. A hologram recreates a true 3D image in space. The critical difference: If you walk around a holographic image, you'll see its back side, not the blank back of a screen.
Princess Leia was the work of the Object-Based Media Group at the MIT Media Lab.  The remarkable thing about it was that instead of expensive laser gear, it was generated using the hands-free Kinect controller from a Microsoft Xbox 360 as the sensor and off-the-shelf video hardware to recreate the image. (The poor quality camera in the Kinect explains some of the fuzziness of the hologram.)

Cisco CEO John Chambers, who boosts holography as part of the company's telepresence push, has done his own Princess Leia act. In 2009, he appeared in person at the Cisco Globilization Centre East in Bangalore, India, while holographic versions of Cisco executives Martin De Beer and Chuck Stucki, who were physically in San Jose, joined him on stage.

Could electronic communications someday soon take the form of face-to-virtual-face conversations with a hologram of your mother, girlfriend, or boss? In a world where videoconferencing is just starting to catch on, the idea seems a bit far-fetched. But an in an IBM survey of 3,000 researchers, respondents named holographic video calls as one of the five technologies they expect to see in place by 2015.

Like other advanced imaging techniques, holographic communications could find its initial uses in health care. ""A hologram of a patient can be beamed right to the home of the doctor, who could rotate the image and make a diagnosis," Verizon Communications Chief Information Officer Shaygan Kheradpir told CNET News. Speaking of his physician father, Kheradpir said: "Just think of how much more time he would have been able to spend with his family if he had this technology. "He would not have had to go into the ER as often as he did. Most times all he needed to do was ask someone to open his mouth and say 'ah.'"

One thing that has to happen before holographic communications can become commonplace, especially for consumers, is a considerable increase in network capacity. Internet connections that can barely handle a decent quality videoconference will need an upgrade to cope with the much greater number of bits needed to project a real-time hologram. "You need a consumerized high-speed network in place to deliver specialized services like holography," says Kheradpir. "It's all about scale. And without scaling the infrastructure, it's too expensive to offer something like this."