It was a dream born in the imagination of a high-school photographer. Michael Klug enjoyed his hobby well enough, but when he found himself standing in the midst of particularly beautiful surroundings, the two-dimensional images his camera captured just didn't cut it.

"There's a richness when you're standing in certain spaces, the way the elements change when you move—it almost generates a fluttering in your stomach," he says. "I wanted to be able to convey that experience to others but I didn't know how."

It was only years later, when Klug was a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, that he found his answer. That's when he and two colleagues formed a startup with the mission of providing customers with "a visual sense of presence"—using true 3D holography. Not to be confused with the stereoscopic imaging used by a growing number of Hollywood filmmakers or with the host of other variants of 3D, true 3D holography mimics real life by reconstructing so-called "light fields" or optical "wave fronts" in space. Done well, Klug says, it allows viewers to move around a 3D image and see it correctly from different viewpoints, to move in and out, and even to touch it by "putting their fingers in the photons." And best of all, no goofy glasses are needed.

"A hologram that's done right really makes you feel you're there—that the thing is in front of you."

- Michael Klug, chief technology officer and co-founder, Zebra Imaging.

"A hologram that's done right really makes you feel you're there—that the thing is in front of you," says Klug, who is chief technology officer of the company he co-founded at MIT, Zebra Imaging. "It's not just the visual message; it really is the whole message."

That's a nod to Nobel laureate Dennis Gabor, who in 1948 invented holography and coined the term by combining the Greek words "holos," meaning "whole," and "graphos," meaning "message."

Based in Austin, Texas, Zebra Imaging creates holographic prints that pop off the page in 3D when illuminated by a light source. Klug says the technology is a powerful collaboration and problem-solving tool, whether it's to help visualize architectural designs, facilitate oil and gas exploration, or plan military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And because we humans interact with the physical world in 3D, Klug says 3D holograms offer a very intuitive means of processing visual data.

"It sure beats the heck out of the alternative, which is to look at aerial photos where you may not know whether a line represents a wall or a curb on the ground," he says. "Those little details are quite important in military scenarios, for example, where you may have troops on patrol."

The secret sauce of what Zebra Imaging does—the company has 38 issued patents and about 80 pending and disclosed—is a unique process that starts with creation of a 3D model in a computer. This can be based on collected data (such as a city neighborhood scanned by LIDAR), created data (such as a CAD package), or a combination of both. Next, a kind of virtual camera moving along a display plane renders multiple views of the scene or object, which are then sent to an elaborate printer system that spits out a film sheet made up of thousands of tiny holographic elements, or "hogels"—think 3D pixels. Add a simple point light source, and voilà!

The illusion of the image soaring off the page in full 3D is impressive indeed (Klug says it's a favorite at industry trade shows). And the prints are not too pricey, coming in at between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on size and other factors, Klug says.

Cisco's chief futurist Dave Evans says Zebra Imaging's technology takes a different approach from the traditional 3D that's enjoying a renaissance in the entertainment world. That approach relies on two perspectives to trick the brain into seeing depth perception.

It's also very different from the technology Cisco and partners used in 2009 to stage the first-ever live holographic video conferencing session, which collapsed thousands of miles to bring top Cisco executives together on a stage in Bangalore, India. The illusion employed a technique known as Pepper's ghost, which involves 2D images and was first used 150 years ago, Evans says. Zebra Imaging's approach also differs from a host of other 3D techniques, from fly's eye array to the lenticular printing used to create those cool moving images sometimes found in cereal boxes or on mouse pads.

Where Zebra Imaging's technology gets really intriguing is in going beyond static images to dynamic, updatable ones. The company recently completed a contract with DARPA to create a dynamic holographic display that allows viewers to zoom in, pan, rotate and otherwise manipulate a 3D image using a mouse. In addition to practical applications like medical imaging and displaying "telefacsimiles" of 3D data, the technology could take games like table football to whole new levels of fun.

"That's where this is going," says Evans, who is also chief technologist for Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group. "It's about different surfaces, be it a table or a display on the wall, becoming high-definition, immersive, 3D and interactive."

But before that brave new world can materialize, Evans says a number of technical challenges must be overcome. For starters, display technologies must evolve to become thin, cheap and flexible, and computing resources need to become cheap and fast enough to render the displays necessary, he says. And of course, the goofy glasses must go.

"In the coming years, as 3D displays improve, consumers will no longer have to rely on the glasses," Evans says.

And then, of course, there are the bandwidth challenges of sending high-quality 3D holograms over the network in real time. Klug says the static prints produced by Zebra Imaging contain up to 1.5 terabytes of visual data—far more than even the most sophisticated networks of today can readily handle. But when these and other challenges do eventually get solved, the fun will really begin.

"What does the world look like tomorrow when 5 billion mobile devices are all capable of recording in 3D, rendering in 3D and transmitting in 3D?" Evans says. "What does that do for changing experiences? I think it's going to be a pretty exciting time."

The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative, technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

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About Laurence Cruz @zasque5

Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.