Will Holography Solve the 3D Problem?
As a grey-bearded observer of the technology scene I’m rarely awestruck by technological innovation, viewing most of what emerges from labs and companies as a logical, if sometimes unexpected, development of what came before.
However I was completely fascinated by the work of some MIT researchers who used an Xbox360 Kinect controller, a holographic projector and an assistant willing to dress up as Princess Leia from Star Wars to reenact the sequence from Star Wars when R2-D2 shows Luke Skywalker the message Leia intended for Obi-Wan, after the robot has had a spanner inserted into the wrong grommet.
A hologram is a true three-dimensional image, relying on the strange things that happen when two beams of laser light interfere with each other, and doesn’t need special viewing equipment, and a holographic projector can put moving representations onto a table or floor, though current technology is far from refined and the ‘virtual Leia’ was red. low-resolution, and 10cm tall.
But it refreshed at 15 frames a second and was sent over the network, creating a viable real-time 3D representation of an actor performing a role, and as such it marked a significant step forward in our ability to do what I’d call ‘proper’ three-dimensional broadcasting.
I’m a 3D TV sceptic up there with 3D cinema denier Mark Kermode, partly because I just don’t think it adds sufficiently to the experience to be worthwhile, partly because the lack of standardisation makes it a consumer nightmare but mostly because any technology that requires your eyes to converge on one plane and focus on another denies several million years of evolution and is clearly doomed.
Projected three-dimensional images are just plausible illusions that represent solid objects, and the obstacles to adoption are not nearly as serious, so I can see them becoming a consumer technology within a decade.
This will pose a serious challenge for cinema and television programme makers. Earlier this year I saw the demonstration of Super HD television on TC0 at Televison Centre, organised by BBC R&D and NHK, and one of the interesting things about it, apart from the astonishingly high resolution, was a comment by BBC engineer John Zybryzcki that Super HD required very different camera technique because if you moved the camera people felt very disoriented.
The same will happen with holographic TV when it is widely available. Cutting from scene to scene in a film was an amazing innovation when Sergei Eiesenstein pioneered it in Battleship Potemkin in 1924, and until then nobody’s visual system had had to cope with the rapidly changing point of view that film editing made possible. That it has now become commonplace should not lead us to disregard just how innovative it was.
But now, only a hundred years later, we are on the verge of perfecting a technology that will require an equally radical reappraisal of our approach to the things we see in front of us. Cutting between 3-D representations of actors in EastEnders, or moving from a close-up of the goal to a long shot of a football match is going to seem very odd and perhaps disorienting to audiences as they start to use holographic tv systems. The temptation will be to be as conservative as the Lumière brothers, who showed relatively static scenes in their early films, but at some point true 3D will need its own Eisenstein.