"Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi," Leia says after Luke triggered a message in R2D2, "you're my only hope." We all probably remember this iconic scene from star wars. For many, it was our first time seeing futuristic holographic technology in action.
Futurists of past envisioned a day when we would be able to chat with holographic representations of people like they were actually right in front of us. While video-calling is the closest we seem to have gotten to the realization of this dream, will holograms ever be a functional piece of modern technology, or will they always be relegated to science labs and science fiction?
Are real holograms on the way?
One of the closest technologies to real holographic tech like we see in the movies is through augmented reality. These headsets, while most not available to the general public, provide everything that you'd imagine a 3D hologram would be. You can look out into the world around you and see things projected holographically into the space around you.
Technically speaking, what's being presented in augmented reality is really a hologram, i.e., it's a 3D virtual object that isn't really there but rather looks as though it is.
The most prominent of this AR technology is Microsoft's HoloLens headset, which is named specifically referencing holographic images. For the most part, too, these holographic capabilities represented through modern AR are probably as close as we're going to get to real-life holograms, everyone just seems to forget that we have this capability.
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In large part, this turning of the eye towards AR as pseudo-holographic tech is likely largely due to the fact that you need "special" equipment to make it work. You need an AR headset. However, there's likely not another way that we can produce the perception of holograms in standard non-modified atmospheric air without the presence of a "special" headset. However, eventually, the technology packed into AR headsets will get to the point that it can be placed in a package no different than standard glasses. This is what Google glass tried to do, but it was a little ahead of its time...
Several startups are working on novel ways to present holograms to the general public that don't require glasses too. Looking Glass Factory, a startup, is working on a device called the Holoplayer. Mike Elgan, a columnist for Computer World, notes that the holo player creates,
"…3D hologram objects that can be manipulated using in-air gestures. When you look straight on, you see the front of the image. Tilt your head to the side, and you see the side of the image. These can be manipulated with natural hand gestures - reaching out, pretending to grab and turning will rotate the 3D objects. In-the-air swiping gestures also work as expected, taking you to the next image in a series."
All that said, "real" holograms are essentially already here, it's just a matter of perfecting the technology even further so it fits more seamlessly into daily life.
Are holograms actually useful?
On principle alone, holograms seem pretty useful. They can be good for technical education and training, good for engineers and designers who need a 3D visualization of the product they're creating. In fact, it's these industrial applications where augmented reality and, more specifically, holographic technology is highly beneficial.
While there have been plenty of efforts to make AR and holographic tech more consumer-focused, with the failure of MagicLeap's consumer-focused glasses this year, the most prominent efforts for consumer AR have failed. Holographic technology would be highly useful in the business teleconferencing world, especially in a world now where telework is becoming more common thanks to the global environment.
Another realm where holograms might be particularly useful is in consumer marketing. Imagine walking through a mall or down the street, and a hologram of someone using or trying to sell you a product pops up. If you take some time to think about the possibilities here, there's no question that there would be some effective ways to utilize holograms in marketing.
For the most part, holographic technology is a promising sector of the technology display industry. It's estimated that the entire hologram market will eventually be worth $5.5 billion.
There are holographic technology applications in military mapping. Imagine 3D battlefields presented whenever needed. The visibility this might give to advancing troops and armies in battles would be significant. While this purpose isn't one that everyone can support, you can't deny that potential military application brings a plethora of money for research and development, which can spill over into consumer applications for the technology. GPS is a great example of this.
In the medical sector, holographic technology poses opportunities for doctors. There's already a significant amount of imaging that occurs in the medical industry. Imagine being able to quickly transfer that imaging to a 3D holographic rendering. Finding internal issues would be a much more solvable problem.
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Holograms also work for the security industry in ways you might not expect too. Holograms are inherently complex and hard to recreate. For credit cards and banknotes, many already have holographic technology embedded in them. For example, a holographic bird in certain credit cards that moves and changes positions in different lights. This can be utilized as a security device, as recreating these holograms are basically impossible with non-proprietary technology.
Finally, holograms present a new medium for artists. Imagine fully digital sculptures displayed at the Louvre. Rather than a physical marble sculpture of David, you would have a holographic one. While this doesn't really translate as well as the real thing in this case, it might with new artist's ideas and passion projects.
Long story short, holograms are here already, and the technology is only getting better and better. The age where you might accidentally activate a hologram from a princess on your robotic sidekick is almost here.