Star Wars holograms suck. Meet the man who’s Proto technology has been used at concerts and awards shows, is being used by Wall Street schmucks, and may even be used in hospitals by remote doctors. David Nussbaum says the future is only 5 years away.
When asked to think about the first hologram they remember seeing, odds are pretty good we’ll be talking about the hazy, flickering, blue-light image of Princess Leia begging Obi-Wan Kenobi for help. He was, after all, her only hope.
The concept of a hologram isn’t much older than that legendary moment in Star Wars: The 1971 Nobel Prize in physics went to Dennis Gabor, a Hungarian-British electrical engineer, for inventing the field. Princess Leia’s plea, however, isn’t truly a hologram. Technically, it’s a volumetric light-field display, the same kind of trickery of light and interpretation that lets Tupac grace stages again.
Right up there with phasers and Inspector Gadget’s gizmos, holograms have been a cool sci-fi trope, something we wish were real but have shelved as an impossibility — at least in the way Star Wars presented them to us.
We’ve had fake holograms in our hands already: Think of trading cards or stickers with shiny images on the surface that shift when we move them, showing a slightly different image that might appear three-dimensional when viewed from just the right angle. But that’s kind of boring when compared to the concept of a living person appearing in a whole different location, talking and interacting with someone as if sitting in the same place. These are essentially layered photographs or images, made by the combination and interplay of laser beams. It’s also how we get security features on currency and credit cards, a practical application so commonplace we take it for granted.
What Dennis Gabor dreamed up, the concept he originally discovered in 1947, required lasers, which wouldn’t be available for more than a decade. He was working to improve the resolution of electron microscopes but needed the ability to create and focus a pure, steady beam of light. He knew he was ahead of his time, calling holograms “an experiment in serendipity that began too soon.” By 1960, lasers could provide that steady, pure light that could be focused and controlled; in 1962, researchers Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks at the University of Michigan were able to create the first practical optical holograms of a toy train and a bird.
Then along came George Lucas and bastardized the idea of a hologram.
Holograms, by the true concept created by Gabor, is a method of photography in which 3D objects are recorded by lasers, then restored by projecting light onto a surface and making an exact replica of the original image or person. Two waves of light must be in perfect sync in order to make the hologram appear as intended; this is done by separating the reference wave (or the original image) and the object wave from a single laser beam. These two beams, in addition to another light close to the reference wave, are projected onto a photographic plate, allowing the now 3D copy of the original item (or person) to be reproduced perfectly.
While we’re hoping for the day that we can beam ourselves into other locations without the need for specialized surfaces or boxes — y’know, like Princess Leia 50 years ago — other groups are working on even more sci-fi-based concepts to give us nifty gadgets from other blockbuster movies. The Object-Based Media group wants to make Tony Stark’s holo-phone real. You might recall this from the Iron Man movies: Tony Stark has a very thin phone that’s way beyond the latest iPhone in terms of capabilities. Constructed from glass or transparent plastic, his phones project maneuverable 3D images and movies just by opening it up. He could project a schematic for one of his machines or flying suits and tinker with the design and functionality in real time, seeing a 3D replica of his project and moving it around in order to make sure his next big idea would work.
In the middle of the concepts of the past and the dreams of the future is the very impressive PROTO device, which allows people to beam themselves from anywhere in the world to any other location where a specially designed box has been placed. The person doing the beaming can interact with anyone who sees it, allowing for full conversations to take place in real time, no lag, no latency, no disruption. The image is crisp and clear and so lifelike it might seem a little surreal.
Proto, created by David Nussbaum, was even used on a recent episode of “America’s Got Talent” to beam in visits by loved ones for the show’s finalists.