“This is what everybody’s talking about,” Ryan O’Toole whispered.
It was an unseasonably cold recent morning in Austin, Texas, and we were standing in the back corner of an office building in an industrial park, staring at a three-foot-tall black box.
O’Toole is the Chief Commercial Officer of Zebra Imaging, one of just a handful of companies in the world working at the cutting-edge of that most sci-fi-seeming technology: holograms. The box, which was making a whooshing noise like the fan of an old desktop PC, displayed a hologram of a multicolored cog, rotating in free space. The machine is called Dynamic Display, and it’s a true, motion light field holographic display. It was developed with funding from DARPA, the U.S. military’s mad scientist research agency, and it is one of the most advanced holographic devices in existence. That is all to say that, in many ways, the Dynamic Display is very cool and, yes, even dynamic. But at that moment, standing in the corporate wilderness of Texas staring at a bland cube, I couldn’t shake the idea that this was not exactly Princess Leia pleading for Obi-Wan’s help.
For nearly 40 years, ever since that moment in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, holography has been trying to catch up to our expectations. Zebra is not the only company that will print you a hologram on demand, though the sector is hardly crowded. For a few hundred bucks, Geola, a Lithuanian company founded in 1998, will turn your 3-D file into a dual parallax hologram. Holoxica, a U.K.-based business, is making inroads into medical imaging, engineering and architecture using Zebra’s imaging technology. There have been numerous Kickstarter campaigns for impressive-looking video holographic displays, but none have turned a product yet.
So while we aren’t yet at New Hope level development, we’re getting closer and Zebra is a big reason why. Founded by a trio of scientists who worked together at the MIT Media Lab with Stephen Benton, the legendary inventor of the rainbow hologram that you will find on pretty much any credit card today, Zebra Imaging is at the cutting edge of holographic technology, both the kind that already exists, and the crazy-sounding stuff of sci-fi dreams. The company has secured many millions of dollars in venture capital funding over the years, and closed a $5-million round last May. At Zebra’s Austin headquarters, I saw first-hand that we are approaching the Princess Leia moment faster than ever before. Thanks in part to the work of the brains at Zebra–the company has 20 employees, six of whom run and maintain holographic printers–and riding on a surging interest in 3-D technology, today’s holography is on the verge of breaking big. How big remains to be seen—and touched.
First the science: A static hologram is a 3-D image created in space by the interference of light that is reflected off a special printed polymer. The light is reflected by holographic elements, also known as hogels, the holographic version of a pixel. Every hogel is actually a tiny version of the entire image. A common phrase in the industry, that a hologram is worth a thousand pictures, is actually an understatement. On a static, printed hologram, each hogel projects its image in over 200,000 directions. And a single hologram 24 inches square is made up of 734,000 hogels, each of which contains 1 megabyte of information.
“Pretty quickly you’re getting into terabytes of information,” explained Craig Newswanger, Zebra’s CTO, whose office is a cavernous, windowless space cluttered with lasers, holograms and bits and bobs from his many side ventures, such as making Tesla coils, Lessigraph machines, and robotic drumkits. If these hogels were played sequentially as frames in a 60 frame per second movie, it would last three hours and twenty minutes (in other words, almost exactly the length of The Godfather: Part II).
Printing holograms requires translating a digital file into something like a 1 terabyte blueprint of hundreds of thousands of pixels. The computing power required for this is only just becoming maintstream. Another challenge is figuring out how to actually print these hogels onto plastic. For a while, the printing process, which drills the hogels into plastic using lasers, was so delicate that even the vibrations of a passing truck could ruin the process. And these printers aren’t cheap. Even now, each of Zebra’s hologram printers costs upwards of a million dollars.
Compared to printed holograms, the challenges of creating a satisfying holographic video are so daunting that the suggestion that this technology is even possible seems a bit loony. For one thing, if you ran a 1 terabyte hologram as a moving image at 60 frames per second, a one-minute video would, in theory, require you to compute 3,600 terabytes of information. Michael Bove, head of the MIT Object Based Media Group, explained that “because of the laws of physics,” dynamic holographic displays require enormous resolution. Zebra’s Dynamic Display is composed of 216 tiles, each of which has a resolution of 1080p. “It’s almost impossible to make a holographic video display that’s the size of a large television,” said Bove, who described what he calls the “Why You Can’t Have Princess Leia Problem.” A hologram cannot, when viewed from any angle, protrude from the surface, as seen from an angle, further than the edge of the hologram (if you watch one of the videos, you’ll know what this means), meaning that it can only be about as tall as it is wide. If this seems a little confusing, Michael Bove put it this way: “Any reconstructed object has to lie along a line that goes from your eye to somewhere on the physical display device.”
For these reasons, Zebra’s Dynamic Display, which Bove described to me as “a technological tour de force,” only projects a pixelated-looking image just a couple of inches out of the surface. It also has a distracting flicker. Princess Leia, that is, remains very much a pipe dream.
But Zebra doesn’t want you to focus entirely on the future. It wants you to think about the present, which it claims is as bright as a good hologram. CEO Chuck Scullion is convinced that holography is about to make a breakthrough in the commercial sector, not as a novelty, but as a serious tool. He may be right. Zebra’s holography has already been put to extensive use by an early adopter with a record of making the right bets on future technology: the U.S. military.
Between 2007 and 2011, the U.S. Army, the Marines, and a couple other secret units that I promised not to mention, printed over 14,000 holographic maps of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Zebra’s hologram gallery, a set of darkened rooms lined with holograms of cityscapes, human anatomy, stadiums, cars, and Disney characters, O’Toole led me to a topographical map showing a valley in Afghanistan. It was a complex network of squiggly lines and numbers—to my untrained eye, it didn’t look like much. He showed me a black and white aerial photo of the same region—it looked like a shallow valley. Then, he showed me the holographic map, which revealed that what I was looking at was in fact a very, three-way valley, with steep mountains on each side. “This was the military’s killer app,” he said.
Rick Black, Zebra’s director of government, who also served in the Army, explained later that the holograms, many of which were created from images collected by drones, made it much easier for soldiers to understand complex terrains such as valleys of dense cities: “It takes less time to understand the information you are picking up with your eyes.” The military’s demand for holograms was so high that it bought three printers and contracted Zebra to set up a top secret war room inside the Austin facility, so that military planners could pore over holographic maps hot off the press. I was allowed to step inside this room, albeit briefly; many of the details of the program are still confidential.
While the demand for these holograms from Afghanistan has receded, the government’s interest in the technology hasn’t. This year, the Army’s hologram printers were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. Now, the Customs and Border Protection is creating holographic maps of portions of the southern border, which is similar to some of the terrain in Afghanistan (holograms are only useful for terrains with a lot of elevation differences). FEMA, also part of DHS, has shown interest in using holograms for disaster response. Following the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, Zebra sent 20 holograms to the 18th Airborne Corps and apparently the Army was impressed. “TSA has also shown an interest,” explained Scullion.
Research seems to support the government’s interest in holograms. An independent study published in 2013 found that when medical students looked at holographic images of anatomy, rather than 2-D diagrams and images, their retention levels spiked, while cognitive load (a term that refers to the difficulty of grasping a concept) dropped significantly. Another study by the Air Force Research Laboratory found that soldiers using cartographic maps were able to plan their routes much quicker than when they used traditional maps. “As human beings, we process in 3-D,” said O’Toole.
Now, Scullion is anxious to get more holograms into civilian hands. He is convinced that everybody has a use for a hologram. “Any time you want to visualize something and collaborate,” he told me, “there’s an application for it.” Zebra already produces holograms of deep-sea drilling rigs for oil and gas companies, including Onquest and Exmar Offshore, and if you visit the Zebra site, you can order a hologram of a 3-D digital file.
In a “not to be shared” Powerpoint presentation, O’Toole ran me through what the company sees as its major commercial opportunities in the next few years: as well as making holograms in-house for highly visual fields like architecture, engineering, and medical imaging (and a “well-known” consumer goods company whose name the company wouldn’t let me share), Zebra is looking to begin selling its printers more widely. Though these printers still cost a million dollars a pop, and can be a little temperamental, in October the company installed its first commercial imager outside of its own four walls, in Budapest, Hungary. The printer is being operated by a company called Infopress. It will be used to print holograms to order for customers who send in digital files. One day, soon, Zebra wants to make desktop holographic printers for the home. As O’Toole sees it, considering that a 3-D printer can now be had for as little as $1,300, that’s not so crazy.
One reason for Scullion’s optimism is that while holograms have been around for decades, it is only in the past few years that they can really be custom produced at large scale. This is partly because of the proliferation of 3-D modeling and image capture technologies, which have been driven by growing interest in Virtual Reality and 3-D printing. Previously, holograms were created out of an actual physical model, known in the industry as a small dead thing (SMD), a tedious, time-consuming process that mostly defeated the purpose of creating the hologram in the first place. Zebra’s holograms can be printed out of “almost any 3-D file you can think of,” according to O’Toole. And whereas just a few years ago it took a good deal of expensive equipment to create 3-D scans, nowadays a 3-D file can be created by a mere push of an iPhone button.
Zebra wants to democratize the hologram so that anybody with a 3-D image can have it printed. Its first direct to consumer printing venture went live last month, through a collaboration with Calendars.com. The company is also currently working with Google to determine the feasibility of making holograms out of Google Earth imagery so that you can make a hologram of your neighborhood (or somebody else’s) or a scenic landscape halfway across the globe.
“We’re moving into a world in which we work with 3-D information and interact with it in the three dimensional space,” explained MIT’s Michael Bove, “and holographic displays are the output devices for that.”
What seems to get Zebra’s team most excited these days is the medical applications. O’Toole proudly showed me a hologram of a real human skull. He pointed out that if you looked into the eye sockets, you could actually see through a hole, into the cranium. For diagnosis, he explained, seeing things from every angle is critical.
Melody Masterson, who as CEO of a medical implant company called Pantheon Spinal, contracted Zebra to make highly detailed holograms of spinal implant found that surgeons were immediately drawn to the highly visual nature of the representation. As 3-D scanning technologies, and thus 3-D digital files, become commonplace in the medical profession, holograms can be expected to become, according to O’Toole, a more widespread tool. Holography and medicine “go hand in hand,” Masterson said. To push holograms into the medical sphere, Zebra has partnered with Zygote, a medical 3-D imaging company that previously collaborated with Google to create the Google Body (Google abandoned the project, and now it’s called Zygote Body).
Zebra is determined to prove that the vision of a hologram-filled world where everyone prints holograms is not illusory. Since it’s a privately held company Zebra doesn’t disclose financial information. But Scullion says that when the company had the Pentagon contracts, it was profitable; right now, as they are investing heavily to move into the commercial sphere, they still aren’t turning a profit on their commercial ventures and partnerships.
Holography has been hiding in the shadow of a sci-fi dream for forty years. While it still may not live up to our unreasonable expectations, it has been quietly flourishing. The black box that O’Toole showed me at the start of my visit didn’t look like the future, but by the end of my visit, I understood why he was so excited. The technical challenges of the holographic dream—the dream where holograms are printed at home, and the video hologram no longer costs $1 million—are significant, but Zebra is confident that we won’t have to wait another forty years.
“What was considered ridiculous five years ago,” Craig Newswanger, Zebra’s CTO said, “is not so ridiculous today.”
[Photos & Video: Arthur Holland Michel]