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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.

FASHIONABLY HOLOGRAPHICThe 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.

“We decided to switch roles between atoms and bits,” PJ Pereira explains. “In most lectures you see a professor made of atoms projecting bits on a wall. But we decided to do it the other way: make a digital representation of him, and instead of having a PowerPoint presentation, have real people holding real props on the stage.”

The result was a unique piece of theater. Negroponte was always a hologram. Objects like his “slides” were often posters held up by stagehands. But the illusion was so good that audience members found it extraordinarily difficult to remember that Negroponte was not really there. To them, he looked all too real, until he would disappear in a puff of smoke.

“It messes with your mind in a way that's hard to describe,” says Pereira. “When you’re watching, you know he’s a projection, and every time something strange happened, every time he picked up a 3-D element, you’d realize you’d forgotten about [the illusion] and be surprised.”

This mingling of digital and reality is not the point of the more public uses of holograms. On a street or against a building, you want shock and awe. No project demonstrates this better than Nike’s M8 NYC Flight Event, which helped launch a new shoe for Carmelo Anthony. Taking place between two piers on the Hudson River in October 2011, it was one of the largest and most impressive holographic shows to date.

The idea was conceived by Wieden+Kennedy's New York office and executed by Philadelphia’s Klip Collective as a secret element of an elaborate party; 2,500 guests showed up believing they were attending a traditional launch event. They enjoyed food, drinks and an outdoor concert. What they didn’t know was that floating on the river near the pier was a water misting system that could create a massive holographic screen.

The surprise began when Klip’s creative director Ricardo Rivera leaned into his microphone and said, “Cue the helicopter.”

Out of the air came a real helicopter carrying a real retired Navy Seal who fast-roped down and dropped into the Hudson. The moment he hit the water, an enormous holographic Carmelo Anthony appeared. He began dribbling, dashing and dunking right on the river. Much of the trick involved highly realistic splashes that made every footfall seem explosive.

Wieden+Kennedy and Klip Collective teamed up to create this three-story holographic projection of Carmelo Anthony on the Hudson River.

“I don't think we set out to do a hologram or a projection,” says Wieden+Kennedy creative director Brandon Mugar. “We wanted to showcase an attribute of Melo’s game in a way that made sense. We found a way that people could feel the power of his game, and present it in a huge way.”

So what's next? Real Star Wars-style projected holograms? Surprisingly enough, maybe. Recently, the MIT Media Lab released a grainy, fifteen-frame-per-second video of a true projected hologram of a graduate student playing Princess Leia. A team from the University of Arizona created a similar holographic projection and published a paper about it in Nature in November 2010.

Chances are, advertising agencies will someday be sending 3-D projected holograms dancing around Times Square. Or we could have holographic friends to keep us company. Or even holographic, drooling, growling Rottweilers to guard our houses (OK, that’s still a ways away). In the meantime, there are plenty of good holographic shows to enjoy—and until you see one, you won’t believe how cool they can be. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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