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The Rediscovery of Holograms
by Joe Shepter

If you’re of a certain age, your first, mind-altering vision of a hologram was a pint-sized Princess Leia pleading for help in the original Star Wars movie. Today, we may wonder why such a technologically-advanced civilization would communicate in such a cumbersome way. Back then, it was just cool.

Luckily, you don’t have to live in an advanced society to see an illusion like that. People have been creating lifelike holographic effects for longer than you might think. In 1848, John Pepper put a realistic ghost on the London stage for Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man. He used an illusion—now called Pepper’s Ghost—that had been known at least since the 1500s.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and we’re seeing holographic projections everywhere. David Beckham appeared as one at an Adidas press launch party for the 2012 Olympics. Cisco used one at a conference in 2007. And in 2008 a holographic Jessica Yellin showed up on Wolf Blitzer’s set, of all places.

Why so many now, and so few before? The usual reasons: technology and expense. To create holographic illusions, you need powerful projectors or carefully controlled light. That used to cost big bucks or require a dedicated space. But the last decade has seen a steep fall in the price per projected lumen—and an increase in the portability of production equipment. While it’s not easy to make a convincing hologram, with a good budget and a skilled production house, you can pull it off.

Hold on a minute, say the experts. Those aren’t real holograms.

They’re right. Technically speaking, a hologram records every piece of light that scatters off an object. Unlike photographs, holograms should always look 3-D and change depending on the angle from which they’re viewed. If you walk around the idealized Princess Leia hologram, you should see her back. This was not the case with David Beckham. He was merely a holographic illusion, created using Pepper’s Ghost. His image was projected onto a mirrored screen angled at 45-degrees to the audience. This creates an effect that looks real and holographic, but isn’t. If you step far enough to one side, the illusion is lost.

So while these are not true holograms, they look awfully real to the people experiencing them. And that has opened up a new range of creative possibilities.

The fashion world has probably embraced holographic illusions the most. Fake models have walked imaginary runways on nearly every continent except Antarctica. They’ve mingled with real people, danced with sea creatures and grown extra arms—all the while saving fashion designers from the logistical nightmare known as the live fashion show.

Holographic models made life easy for Forever 21 thanks to this semi-portable fashion show created by space 150. Like most photographs of holographic projections, these images do not capture the realism of the live experience.

“With a [holographic] runway show, there can be a lot of savings in money, headache and hassle,” says Billy Jurewica of space 150. “Runway shows are completely chaotic backstage. Girls can trip, get a run in something or lose an accessory.”

Holographic models are much more reliable. They never get tired, their clothes stay perfect and they always have great hair days.

With its whimsical holographic fashion show for Forever 21, space 150 exploited this possibility by using a version of Pepper’s Ghost. Rather than walking along a catwalk, the models came directly towards the audience to preserve the holographic effect. Then they sparkled and disappeared. They walked down staircases. They changed outfits fifteen times in a second (only slightly faster than many Forever 21 customers). And so far, they have done this in three cities for roughly the same cost as a single live show.

The Forever 21 show was primarily about fashion, but it also played with a central feature of illusion: The models looked quite lifelike until space 150 digitally altered them. One minute you were looking at realistic clothing; the next moment, it disappeared in a cloud of sparkles.

This mingling of real and digital formed the basis of perhaps the most elaborate holography show ever staged: Nicholas Negroponte’s 2011 “lecture” for the University of Phoenix. Conceived by ad agency Pereira & O’Dell and produced with the help of Digital Illusions and Laundry Designs, it deliberately mixed holograms with real life objects to drive home Negroponte’s ideas. [It’s also a winning project in this year’s Interactive Annual, see p. 146.]

Pereira & O’Dell produced a holographic lecture that merged real objects with a holographic Nicholas Negroponte.

A bit of background. Negroponte is the founder of MIT’s Media Lab and has long been a leading thinker in the digital space. In his 1995 book Being Digital, he famously described the world as composed of atoms and bits, which can be roughly translated to mean physical objects and digital information. In the last fifteen years, Negroponte has come to embrace the notion that bits and atoms are blurring. That was the subject of the lecture—and the inspiration for the project. Shepter
Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.