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Ghosts, Gorillaz, and a Guy named Wolf (Part 2 of 3 on the Evolution of 3D Technology)

March 6, 2010

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The illusion of 3D holographic images has captivated audiences for over a century. The theaters of London were once the only place to witness these spectacles. Now technology is bringing the visual magic of 3D holograms to the stage, store, and studio.

One of the cool things about science fiction movies is seeing all of the futuristic, imagined technology that hasn’t yet been developed.  Cyborgs, flying cars, cloaking devices, time machines, hyperspace, teleportation.  I sometimes wonder if the technology in sci-fi movies will ultimately become a reality.

Take the Star Wars movies for example.  Remember the hologram of Princess Leia beaming from R2-D2?  Or the projected image of the Death Star orbiting the planet Endor during an attack briefing?  Or members of the Jedi Council attending meetings as a virtual image?  It all seems like the stuff of the far future, doesn’t it?

Well, the future may be a lot closer than you realize.  The foundation behind all of those illusions was developed over a century ago.  Technology exists today that replicates the holographic magic of Star Wars.  In fact, 3D holographic projection systems are currently being used in a variety of applications, and with stunning results.  Projected holograms have found their way into commercial sectors such as advertising, promotions, entertainment, and teleconferencing.

The perceived magic behind 3D holographic imagery was first conceived in 1860s England.  Engineer Henry Dircks developed an optical illusion technique intended for theatrical productions.  Referred to as Dircksian Phantasmagoria, the technique utilized light from a so-called magic lantern to project images of ghosts onto a stage.  Dircks tried to market his method to theaters, but found no takers due to the costly renovations needed.

Pepper’s Ghost

In 1862, Dircks was displaying the Phantasmagoria at the Royal Polytechnic, a science institution in London.  It was here that the director of the Polytechnic, John Henry Pepper, first saw the technique.  Pepper modified the existing method and built a full-scale model for use in the theater.

A reflection of an actor hidden below the stage was projected onto a sheet of glass. With proper lighting, the reflection appeared as a ghostly figure on stage.

The arrangement of Pepper’s Ghost consisted of an actor located below and in front of the stage, hidden from the audience.  A sheet of plate glass was mounted at a 45-degree angle at the front of the stage, also invisible to the viewers.  An illumination device, called a fantascope, projected light onto the hidden actor.  The pane of glass then reflected the image of the actor onto the stage.  The result was a ghost-like image of an actor that could appear on stage and seemingly interact with other live actors.

Pepper first used the newly developed effect during a production of Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man, and with much success.  The technique of Pepper’s Ghost quickly became a popular method for entertaining theater audiences throughout the late 1800s.   Even today attractions such as  haunted houses, museums, and theme parks feature the technology of Pepper and Dircks.

The Pepper’s Ghost technique was the result of refining and improving existing technology.  Just as John Henry Pepper did in 1862, Uwe Maass would follow the same approach a century later.  In an attempt to modernize three-dimensional holography, Maass replaced the plate glass used by Pepper with a thinner reflective foil material.  The newer material offers advantages in terms of a lighter weight and flexibility.

Musion dazzles the stage

Video technology was also implemented into the new holographic system, referred to as the Musion Eyeliner system.  Using the same general arrangement, hidden actors are projected onto the reflective material, only this time with HDTV projection systems.

A single HD video camera is used to film the actors.  The video footage is then sent through a single HDTV projection system accompanied by hard disc players or video servers.

Like the Pepper’s Ghost technology, the Musion Eyeliner system enables live actors to interact with 3D imagery.  Although the system is actually projecting two-dimensional images onto the stage, the audience experiences the illusion of three dimensions.  The advanced HDTV technology, along with the Pepper’s Ghost method, offer the audience truly lifelike images.  Production costs are relatively low due to the minimal amount of equipment required to achieve the effect.

Musion is considered by many to be a world leader in 3D holographic projection technology.  Based on their body of work, it is easy to see how they have built such a prestigious reputation.  Their client list includes the likes of Adidas, Cadillac, Cisco, Ford, GM, Reebok, and Samsung.  The live stage settings in which Eyeliner operates are quite suitable for entertainment and promotions events.

Perhaps one of the more notable events arranged by Musion was at the 2006 Grammy Awards.  A live stage performance by pop superstar Madonna along with the English virtual band Gorillaz was choreographed using 3D holographic projection.  Gorillaz were the ideal band to integrate with the Eyeliner system because they had always appeared and performed as animated figures.  The 3D projected images proved to be so realistic that it really appeared to be live figures on stage and interacting.  In fact, the live audience, as well as most of the television audience, had no idea that the Madonna figure was actually a projected hologram.

The Musion Eyeliner system has also been used for live presentations of promotions.  Former Vice-President Al Gore was commissioned to kick off the 2007 Live Earth benefit concert in Tokyo.  Utilizing Musion technology, Gore was able to materialize on stage and appear seemingly lifelike.  His projected image coupled with additional special effects provided the audience with a dazzling visual spectacle that rivaled many science fiction movies.

Advertising in 3D

Another leading company, activ8-3D, is applying the magic of 3D technology to the retail world.  Utilizing the same principles as Musion, they offer state of the art units that function as display cases.  These units are compact which makes them ideal for retail outlets.

3D hologram retail display cases, like this one developed by activ8-3D, employ the Pepper's Ghost technique.

The retail displays showcase merchandise in crisp, clear fashion with the use of a projected and reflected image.  The 3D image is projected within the unit and is visible from all sides.  Some units even allow the consumer to interact with the display through the use of a handheld remote.  They can rotate the image in any direction or adjust the color to their preference.

The Musion and activ8-3D systems have proven their potential to enhance the audience and buyer experience.  The magic of 3D holography is not, however, just for the theater or the shopping mall.  It can also be produced across much broader platforms.  In an effort to take 3D video technology a step further, a company called Virtz developed a system for live broadcasting of 3D-like images.

Virtz & CNN beam 3D

Teleconference feeds, like those used in TV interviews, are typically displayed on conventional 2D monitors.  The technology introduced by Virtz functions similarly by enabling real-time conferencing across distances.  Instead of the flat two dimensional image, the interview subject appears to be projected in 3D within the interviewer space.  This gives the illusion of face-to-face dialogue between the two parties.

The teleconferencing application makes the setup of the Virtz system more elaborate than the Musion Eyeliner system.  First, there is the remote location, referred to as the “transporter room.”  It is a green studio shaped in a 220 degree semicircle.  Within the studio are 35 HD cameras positioned along the wall.  They are arranged to capture various angles of the subject, who stands in the center.

The main studio consists of 6 tracking cameras that transmit data, via graphic software, to the remote location.  Here the data is processed by another graphic engine.  The processed tracking information then selects 2 of the 35 cameras present in the “transporter room.”  More software takes the two selected images and renders a full 3D representation of the filmed subject.  After some color and image corrections, the 3D model is then sent back to the main studio as an HD video feed.

Once the 3D video signal arrives, it is combined with the images from the main studio.  A few visual effects are added, including an aura around the 3D feed, to give the image some texture.  The final result is what appears to be a 3D projected image of the remote subject standing in the main studio.  The entire process runs in fractions of a second to enable smooth visual quality in a live broadcast.

CNN made history during its presidential election coverage in 2008.  The news channel became the first to conduct a live holographic interview on television.  CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer was located at the networks election headquarters in New York.  His interview subject, correspondent Jessica Yellin, was reporting from Chicago.

With the Virtz system, Yellin’s 3D hologram was beamed from Chicago to New York and then projected in the studio.  Though the two subjects were positioned several hundred miles apart, it appeared on television as if they were having a face-to-face discussion.  CNN used the technology again for another interview featuring anchor Anderson Cooper and rapper Will.i.am.

The interviews conducted by CNN grabbed the attention of many people.  They may ultimately revolutionize the applications of 3D technology, especially in teleconferencing.  With modern 3D imagery, theater productions now have more creative possibilities to enhance the audience experience.  Holographic technology continues to progress in live venues, broadcasting, and retail.

Science fiction movies may be the stuff of imagination, but it doesn’t have to be all make-believe.  Whether it is life imitating art, or vice versa, reality could eventually resemble the fantastic world of Star Wars. We may someday use holograms to send a message, plan an event, or attend a meeting.  The Death Star, R2-D2, and lightsabers may have to wait though.

In the final post of this series, we will focus on the path of 3D technology from past and present into the future.  What are the newest developments and devices for 3D imagery that we have yet to see?  Are consumers really going to gravitate toward all of these new experiences, or will they label them a gimmick?

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