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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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Gaming Transcends Cyberspace for Humanitarian Cause

March 2, 2010

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“My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.” – Jane McGonigal

Millions of online gamers log on everyday to their favorite virtual landscapes. I am not much of an online gamer, but maybe I should consider becoming one. Slaying monsters in World of Warcraft may lead to the development of positive world changing skills. At least this is the message that game designer Jane McGonigal is sending.

McGonigal also serves as Director of Game Research and Development for the Institute for the Future. IFTF is a nonprofit research group that focuses on emerging trends and technologies that may potentially have an impact on global society. The group tackles a broad range of issues including health care, global business, consumerism, and work.

IFTF is committed to improving the quality of life on a global scale. Part of their approach is through the comprehensive understanding of modern technologies. This thorough knowledge enables them to offer forecasts and provide insights.

McGonigal is an avid gamer. She believes that gamers have the abilities necessary to overcome challenges in the real and virtual worlds. That is why she has developed her latest online game, Urgent Evoke.

Urgent Evoke is a fully developed online game complete with an interactive storyline.

Urgent Evoke includes traditional elements of popular alternate reality games – story lines, missions, power-ups, superheroes, and points. Players are tasked with completing ten challenges during the ten week game. The difference is that missions are completed in the real world, not the virtual one.

In this game, the real world environment is Africa. The players can be anyone who wants to participate. Their tasks include real-world social activism and problem solving. Their obstacles include hunger, poverty, water, conflict, human rights, and education.

McGonigal has lofty ambitions. Among them, according to her blog, is “to make sure that a game developer wins a Nobel Prize by the year 2032.” She says the goal of Urgent Evoke is to empower people to make significant change in the world.

McGonigal believes that gamers have the strengths to carry them through adversity. They know how to collaborate through networks. They maintain persistence when challenges become increasingly difficult. Even the introverted can improve their social skills.

Not many people would probably consider online games as a resource for humanitarian education or global progression. Ask McGonigal and she is likely to tell you otherwise. She compares life’s challenges with advancing to the next level in a game or taking on the game level boss. You don’t burden yourself with worries. You just enjoy the challenge. Games teach us that failure is okay. Gamers learn to stay the course regardless of failures.

Any person or organization that is devoted to the advancement of humanity must be applauded.  The world would be a much better place if there were more people who shared the same charitable drive as Jane McGonigal.  She has a clear vision and a developed means in which to realize it.  Is her vision feasible, or should it be dismissed as futurist delusions of grandeur from an overzealous gamer?

There is a reason millions of game enthusiasts continue to log on to virtual worlds each day.  Gaming is an extremely immersive form of escapism.  It enables the ordinary to become extraordinary, with relatively nothing tangible at stake.  Gamers enter these alternate worlds to escape reality, not to influence reality.

Drawing analogous comparisons between an online gaming world and the harsh brutalities of the Third World seems like misguided ambition.  The life or death obstacles encountered in underdeveloped nations like Africa are much more than just the equivalent of surpassing levels in a game.  There are no points or power ups in poverty stricken nations.

We still should never doubt the genuine power of humanitarianism.  Maybe David Bowie was right when he said, “We can be heroes.”

Urgent Evoke is free to play, and open to anyone, anywhere in the world. It launches on March 3, 2010 and concludes on May 12, 2010. Tackling major global issues still not enough incentive for you? Well, if you manage to complete all 10 challenges, the World Bank Institute will also certify you as a social innovator.

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Break on Through (To the Other Side) (Part 1 of 3 on the Evolution of 3D Technology)

February 16, 2010

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3D imaging technology has been around since the mid-1800s, but had never made real progress in the media world…  until now.  Will the experience finally catch on with the mainstream, or is it simply an illusion?

You may have heard about the blue aliens, exotic creatures, scenic landscapes, and explosive action that have ravaged movie theaters during the past two months.  In fact, you may have been one of the millions of people who have witnessed the spectacle Avatar.  The newly crowned box office king, having grossed over $2 billion worldwide, has left audiences mesmerized with its groundbreaking 3D presentation.

Will the experience of vibrant 3D motion pictures ever carry over into home entertainment?  Well, it may not be too long before those blue aliens break through your television screen.  Several manufacturers recently introduced 3D capable television models.  Most of them are scheduled to hit the consumer market this year.

The newly enhanced 3D televisions were considered to be the biggest hit at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.  Many experts and insiders believe stereoscopy, or 3D, will be the next breakthrough in home entertainment popularity.  Others are less optimistic that the buzz will carry over into consumer spending.  Regardless of the forecasts, there is no doubt that 3D technology, particularly in television systems, has taken a giant leap forward.

HOME INVASION: Leading television manufacturers are introducing new 3D capable models this year. They are expected to start around $2000.

Surprisingly, 3D television technology has been in existence for quite some time.  In fact, there are several different techniques which are used to produce still and motion pictures with a three dimensional effect.  Probably the type most common to consumers is the anaglyphic technology in which viewers don the slick, cardboard glasses with red and cyan lenses.

Anaglyph images were developed as early as the mid-1800s in Germany.  They consist of two layers of imagery made up of two filtered colors, superimposed upon one another in an offset fashion.  Once the images are viewed through the glasses, the illusion of depth is created through the visual cortex of the brain.  Various media platforms including theatrical films, DVD’s, and video games are capable of utilizing the anaglyphic process.

The anaglyphic process is aesthetically effective, but it has its share of pitfalls.  The picture quality and overall 3D effect produced is less than stellar.  The color filtering method results in pictures that are less vivid than when viewed in normal 2D fashion.  Also, the use of color filters distorts the input of imagery to the eye leaving many people with headaches and nausea.

Although visually intriguing, the anaglyph 3D system proved to be rudimentary technology. Vast improvements in the viewing experience were made with the development of newer methods.

The current 3D imaging method in use today, polarization, is visibly superior to its predecessor.  The polarized 3D system has been around since the mid-1930s. The technology, commercially referred to as RealD, is the standard for cinematic viewing.

FASHION EVOLVES WITH TECH: Is it merely a coincidence that 3D eyewear has experienced a fashionable transformation over the years? You decide. From top to bottom: Anaglyphic filtered glasses dazzled with the retro look of the 80s, polarized glasses sported a sleek Ray-Ban type of appeal, while active-shutter glasses boast the techie cyberpunk look of the future.

Similar to the anaglyphic process, this technology operates by superimposing two images onto a silver screen.  Rather than color filters, RealD images are projected through polarized filters.  Essentially, certain portions of light are restricted through the polarization process.

Viewers also wear glasses, but these are equipped with an additional set of polarizing filters in the lenses.  The combination of filters controls the light to the eyes in such a manner that each eye sees a different image.  The viewer sees the same scene, but from slightly different perspectives through each eye.  The result is a stereoscopic, or three dimensional, effect.

Many films in the early 1950s incorporated polarization 3D systems.  In fact, many aficionados refer to the years 1952 – 1955 as the “golden era” of 3D.  Unfortunately, the high costs and complex methods involved in projecting these films eventually resulted in a lack of popularity.

There had been attempts at reviving 3D entertainment since then, but without any real consistency.  The enormous box office draw generated by Avatar may however indicate a rebirth of 3D cinematic pictures.  The new technology and filming methods may even prove to be more significant than the movie itself.

Will the success of Avatar carry an impact beyond the movie theaters?  More consumers are opting for home entertainment over higher movie ticket prices.  Components such as Blu-Ray players and HDTV’s have become more affordable.

If the 3D experience is making a big splash in cinematic venues, then it only makes sense to package it for home consumption.

That is exactly the approach that leading manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and LG are taking.  Even major broadcasters and providers, like DirecTV and ESPN, are getting in on the act.

That approach starts with a filming technique called alternate-frame sequencing.  Scenes are filmed simultaneously with two different cameras, recording images for the left and right eyes.  These frames are then placed  on a single strip of film, alternating from left to right.  During playback, the film is projected at 48 frames per second versus the standard 24 frames per second.

The other component that enables this new 3D technique to function is active-shutter technology.  The old-school cardboard glasses have been replaced with battery-powered glasses containing shutters.  Instead of just fancy eyewear, these glasses are more integral in the viewing experience.

The HDTV sends a wireless signal to the receiver within the glasses.  This allows the glasses to synchronize with the alternating images projecting from the television.  The electrical signals activate the shutters, essentially an LCD screen, to open and close rapidly.

The left eye sees only the left image and the right eye sees only the right image.  Because it is happening so fast, the brain blends these images together to produce a stereoscopic image.  The end result is the illusion of depth.

So if you were wondering whether those blue aliens could ever land on the other side of your television screen, it may just happen sooner than you think.  Many manufacturers and broadcasters are banking on 3D as this year’s breakthrough in home entertainment.  The consumer market will ultimately decide whether it really is the next frontier of television viewing.

Progressive 3D technology isn’t strictly limited to the confines of your living room.  Part two of this series will feature the amazing capabilities of 3D imagery in live environments.  Audiences are immersed in virtual concerts of their favorite bands.  Teleconferences are conducted with lifelike images of people.  And swarms of robotic fireflies are choreographed in midair.

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