Confessions of a Hologram Hacker

I’m writing this on a plane between Looking Glass’ Brooklyn and Hong Kong labs, in awe that we just raised $10 million dollars* to chase down a dream I’ve had since I was a kid. The dream of the hologram.

There are really only a handful great technology dreams from the pages of sci-fi that are achievable in the 21st century. Everyone has their own list of course, but mine includes going to Mars (GO ELON), curing cancer, non-rocket propulsion travel into orbit, West World-style thinking and feeling robots, practical fusion energy…and the hologram.

The classic cinema dream of the hologram, circa 1977
A more recent cinema holographic interface in Big Hero 6

As a former holographer in the true technical sense of the term, I knew holograms to be one thing. But that Physics 101 description doesn’t matter so much anymore. Movies have reshaped our definition of holograms, and it’s that cinematic dream that we’re aiming for at Looking Glass.

The holograms we’ve seen in movies are a little hard to define, even though you know them when you see them. That said, there are two attributes that for most people are at the core of the holographic dream: 1. Floating 3D scenes that groups of people can interact with, 2. No AR/VR headgear or 3D glasses required. As a result, these have become the guiding principles behind everything we do at Looking Glass.

But making real the dream of the hologram from the pages and frames of sci-fi is a rough road. If you’re a hologram history nut like me, you know that the last 100 years is littered with failed attempts of thousands upon thousands of inventors reaching towards this goal. It’s a little like the chase for heavier-than-air flight in terms of the sheer number of wild, weird, and wonderful devices that have been invented…and the inventor carnage left in the wake of the quest.

Sega’s now-forgotten foray into the hologram quest with their classic 1991 Time Traveler.

Why have so many people failed? Partly the technological building blocks of the past weren’t up to the challenge. Arrays of micro-machined optics didn’t exist, pixels were not yet conceived of or were too expensive, and computers were not fast enough. In some cases another technological trend won the day (like in the derailing of Louis Lumiere’s work on reaching towards this dream, only to settle on the invention of cinema itself with his brother). And of course until recently 3D visual or 3D interactive content simply didn’t exist in any quantity. But things are changing and the time of the hologram is near.

Looking Glass’ quest for the hologram has gone through a few stages over the past few years.

Stage 1: Volumetric Prints, 2014 :: a freeze frame of a perfect volumetric display

Stage 2: L3D Cube, 2015 :: 3D LED Matrix

Stage 3: Volume, 2016–2017 (and currently shipping!) :: dynamic lightfolding volumetric display

All of us in Looking Glass feel honored and humbled to be given the chance to chase down this dream, and we will not let down the inventors of the past. We’re shipping Volume beta units to other hologram hackers around the world now, and we’ve already got some next steps in the works. (Like Stage 4: Holographic Tablet, 2017 — : a new interface we’ve in development that lets you reach through the barrier that normally separates the real world and digital space. Literally letting you reach through, ahem, the looking glass.)

So, after decades of waiting, at last, the holograms are coming!

p.s. The hologram seekers of the past, by and large, kept their discoveries secret in their labs for too long and I’d wager that lowered their odds of success. So we’re aiming to do things a bit differently this time around. Artists, makers, coders, Star Wars lovers, and nerds of the world: if you’d like to be a part of this quest, come by our labs in Brooklyn or Hong Kong for one of our monthly-ish prototype parties where we share our newest discoveries, or email me at [email protected] if you’re in the area and want to just stop on by.

Also, let me know what you think of what we’re doing — which of the above steps is closer to the dream to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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*This is not a post about raising venture capital money, but I will say a clavier opened the door to the keeper of the vorpal sword. It turns out the vorpal sword is in Boulder, CO.