"Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi! You're my only hope!" This sentence uttered by Princess Leia as a holographic projection in the very first Star Wars film not only made Luke Skywalker dream but also inspired a whole generation of tech disciples for the future. It was 1977, I was a year old, and holograms only existed in cinema blockbusters. The 70s and 80s were the days when little boys like me dreamt and imagined what it would be like to make a phone call with a wristwatch or have a transcontinental video conversation with friends.
Today, 40 years later, all of this has become a reality. The visions I had as a child have come true thanks to exciting technology – and I'm actively helping to shape them. The hologram that I just created with my team still isn’t floating through the air as an ion laser-parsed materialization. But with the help of a mixed reality glasses, we can scan the space in front of us and place virtual objects in it. But more on that later.
How did we come to this development? Hollywood has always thought of things first. Elaborate visions of the imagination always portray holograms as an expression of advanced technology. An unforgettable science fiction classic that inspired me as a teenager is "Back to the Future, Part 2" from 1985. The main protagonist, Marty McFly, is frightened by a holographic advertising shark during his sightseeing tour of Hill Valley in 2015. A crazy idea in the context of the technical conceptions in the year 1985 and previously unseen by trick techniques. My ambitions of holographic advertising formats began at that very moment.
Now it's the year 2017 and that prophesied holographic cinema remains a fiction. Holograms are today still seen as the epitome of the future. Perhaps that's why they're so fascinating. Because they express the unbroken belief in a technology that transcends the (still) valid limits of what's feasible. In fact, technologies already exist that make holographic visualizations possible. The future is now – if not a bit different than one we would expect in Hollywood style.
I would define a hologram as a three-dimensional projection of an object on a surface that adheres to the physics of a space. The viewer can move around the projection freely because it's fixed as a virtual object in the space. The state of the technology is still as such that we create the projection as an image on the transparent eyeglass lens. If I wear the glasses, I see both the space I am in and the superimposed object. That makes the clever combination of a room sensor, a graphics processor and an HPU (holo processing unit) possible. Everything is done in the glasses without them being plugged in or connected to a computer.
A sensor scans the room and calculates an image of virtual space, which the computer then uses to place 3D objects. A wall is recognized, just as a table or the floor. I still see them, but now with the added possibility of placing virtual objects or virtual persons on it. Different from other technological developments that everyone's talking about, this approach to a holographic experience is also called "mixed reality" (MR).
Compared to virtual reality (VR), the advantage of the MR is that the user is not immersed in an entirely virtual world, but rather still perceives the environment through the glasses. This is then expanded with virtual overlays like augmented reality (AR), whereby the application scenario goes far beyond the limits of a conventional AR application for smartphones. That's because it usually requires a marker, which must then be permanently captured by a camera so that the virtual image is not lost. This doesn't happen with mixed reality. For that, holograms remain in the room, and I can even walk around them without the need for a marker.
Even if AR, VR, and MR are relatively similar, the technical details offer advantages and disadvantages. That's why it's worth investigating which application is best suited for which technology.
For mixed reality, always perceiving my surroundings and moving in accordance with the virtual experience is crucial for me. That's different for VR, which leads to unpleasant side effects among many users. For example, my first experience with VR glasses also ended in a whole afternoon of nausea and dizziness. No wonder since the body reacts to inconsistencies between sensed and real movement at times with no small amount of nausea. Because of its improved tolerance, it’s one to nothing in the competition between these technologies.
A further decisive advantage of MR is the real possibility to interact with the displayed virtual objects. By wearing a pair of glasses, I can keep my hands free in a practical way and move the field of view freely in all directions by moving my head. This makes for a much freer experience when compared to an AR smartphone application. Two to nothing for MR, I'd say.
High-performance cameras with motion sensors in the MR glasses recognize the movements of my hands, and through a predefined set of gestures, I can interact with the virtual world – no need for additional tools or controllers. Even control by voice commands is possible. That's more practical than the more complicated setup of a VR experience, for which I have to set up motion sensors in addition to VR glasses and also have a controller in my hands. Three to nothing for MR.
For the sake of fairness, however, I should also point out something that's a bit of a weakness for the current MR glasses. The "field of view" (FOW), which is the size of the virtual field of view in the currently available MR glasses, is relatively small. That means that as I look through the glasses, the area in the glasses that the holographic world depicts is no larger than a small rectangle – and large objects are only shown as a section, depending on the position of the viewer within the FOW.
This can be avoided by scaling the virtual objects. Then the size of the small field of view is less relevant. Nevertheless, the MR experience for users is less immersive compared to VR applications – and so I have to give the point to VR here. However, the next generation of MR glasses will bring far greater or even completely immersive viewing. So I’ll conclude the comparison with a clear call of three to one for MR.
My conclusion: The MR technology, which still lacks a broad consumer base, has decisive advantages over current top technologies. It's easier to handle, more compatible, and with the next iteration of the technology, MR will certainly be able to overtake VR on a broader level. Particularly in the sense of a digital scenario for brand storytelling, MR offers a wide range of creative and visionary possibilities. This is precisely because holograms in communication still have something magical and Hollywood-futuristic about them – and each user would like to feel a little bit of the future. After all, there's a little Luke Skywalker or Marty McFly in every one of us.
With the MR functions and features described here, we now have completely new possibilities for creating brand experiments. We're breaking through the framework of one-dimensional communication, which until now has been very limited by the limitations of the technically possible touch points.
If we place a user in an empty room and they put on MR glasses, we can completely populate this space with virtual objects and holograms, with as many as we want. The user can move freely around the room and interact with the holograms without any additional tools. They can move, reposition and scale freely.
For example, in the office, a workstation can be extended by holographic visualizations or an entirely virtual office, with browsers, screens, input interfaces, etc.
For entertainment, holographic visualizations can be added to a linearly broadcast program – second screens are so 2010! Just think of the visualization of election results, of sport replays or the simultaneous representation of strategic decisions in a holographic 3D field – the Bundesliga with 3D replays in real-time on my living room table, for example, I would already find impressive.
In the retail sector, we're already thinking about the holographic visualization of products. And we can create retail experiences that go far beyond the possibilities and limitations of the retail architecture. Whether it’s a small trade show stand that's expanded with a holographic experience, or a sales space with products, all of which only 'exist' holographically on the ground – the possibilities seem unlimited. We can make brand appearances interactively without the need for traditional touch points, such as screens or tablets, and show stories about products at the same time.
Holographic experiences also make the invisible visible in teaching and research areas. The superimposing of holograms over the body and objects makes an X-ray view of the interior possible. The 3D visualization of anatomical models illustrates functions or shows detailed operating possibilities. Instructions for the correct handling of technical entities can be displayed directly on the object or can be displayed virtually without real objects and made tangible. I can, for example, go on a journey into the world of atoms or place an A380 in the living room.
For holographic brand storytelling, however, it's crucial to design the scenario in such a way that the real space is always included. That's because the context of the real environment makes the holographic experience so excitingly authentic. If I experience the hologram of my conversation partner next to me in the same room, though physically at the other end of the world, I'm experiencing the future at my own pace.
Mixed reality and holographic experiences, "Disrupting Time and Location": The long wait since the 1970s has paid off and a childhood dream has come true. For a nerd like me, there's no better time than now!