For many of us, there’s a good chance that when we think of holograms, we think of a space princess with cinnamon-bun hair enlisting help, rather than everyday life. But that’s changing thanks to the rise of mixed and augmented reality, which are providing a new venue for the format.
One of the companies leading the way is 8i, which creates 360-degree photorealistic and accessible holograms of people. We spoke with Nicole St. Jean, VP of content at 8i, about how the company approaches holograms, as well as how they see the future of the medium.
What Holograms Look Like Now
8i’s version of the modern hologram isn’t quite the way we (or science fiction) imagined them in the past. “A lot of people think of holograms as technically being broadcast in the air in some way,” St. Jean says. Think of past faux-holograms like the 2012 Tupac “appearance” at Coachella or CNN’s 2008 interview with Jessica Yellin.
8i’s holograms are created from volumetric video, meaning they aren’t just flat-looking two-dimensional images. Instead, they have depth and can be seen from any angle. You can even see the soles of a holographic person’s feet if you like. It’s just like having a real person in front of you that you can walk around. “That’s the future of where this is all going,” explains St. Jean.
8i has helped realize that future with its Android and iPhone app Holo, which offers a catalogue of volumetric assets including German soccer player Jerome Boateng, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and even Spider-Man. Those assets can be placed, scaled, and rotated into photos and videos you take with your smartphone camera. Want Spider-Man to channel his inner Ant-Man and either appear tiny on your shoulder or double your height? No problem.
How 8i Creates Its Holograms
Despite the whimsical possibilities of Holo, 8i was – and is – guided by a very specific goal, says St. Jean: “How do we bring photo-real people into these experiences?” It starts with green-screen stages equipped with 41 standard 2K Point Grey cameras, arranged to capture every angle of a person or animal. Once a performance is captured, proprietary technology — which includes machine learning and algorithms — renders the volumetric video into what you can find in the Holo app, or use for your own creations, thanks to the developers tools 8i recently made available.
That turnaround can be pretty quick. “It could take a couple of days to do the processing, if you know exactly which takes to use,” St. Jean says. “Some of it can even be done in an hour.” Take, for example, a limited-time-only Jon Hamm hologram that 8i created in early 2017 for the Michael Almereyda film Marjorie Prime, in which the actor actually plays a hologram. “He came in on a Monday, and he was in the app a few days later, in time for the Sundance premiere that weekend,” says St. Jean.
We may have covered the “what” and “how” of 8i, but one crucial element remains: why? The answer lies largely in one of 8i’s core philosophies: authenticity. Yes, there’s fun to be had with Holo, but with its assets, the company aspires to contribute something that’s missing from Snapchat filters or Bitmojis. “There are a lot of places in that world for fantasy and silliness and different cartoon avatars,” St. Jeans says. “But there’s really a need for authentic humans.”
That’s partially because it enhances the immersiveness of what Holo offers, as well as training and education applications, but also because it’s vital for what 8i sees as a major potential for holograms: mementos. After all, what 8i can do with its capture technology doesn’t have to be limited to superheroes or holographic instructors. It can be applied to people we actually know.
St. Jean knows that firsthand. Several years ago, 8i put together a shoot for friends and family, and St. Jean’s children were captured and rendered into volumetric images. Now, St. Jean has an authentic and “living” memento of her kids at that age, which she can see on her phone at any time. The impact of something like that is significant. “You’re looking at them the way you remember them,” she says. “The way my little one-year-old toddles around, that’s how I remember him moving.” The possibilities of that also go further. Imagine not just seeing those captures in your phone, but one day strapping on a HoloLens and sharing the same (virtual) space with a memory of a loved one.
The Holographic Road Ahead
None of this is to say that there aren’t creative and narrative possibilities with holograms, too. 8i is already seeing some of that potential with how Holo users are implementing assets in the app. “You can just throw a hologram into your video scene, and it’s funny by itself,” St. Jean says. “But there are people who have really taken it to another level, telling more complicated stories. It’s fun to see that people are figuring that out, because I think there is a future of storytelling that is in three dimensions.”
“Future” is a key word there, however. Not all videographers have access to stages with over 40 cameras and sophisticated volumetric rendering technology. Still, St. Jean foresees an evolution of accessibility. “I think it will go in a trajectory that’s similar to photography. First it’s professionals, studios, and big expensive equipment, but then it will be a phone in everybody’s hand. It will quickly move into being accessible and scalable. I don’t know how quickly, but it will happen.”
You could argue that might be a threat to what 8i does, but they don’t see it that way. For the format and technology to grow, input and experimentation is needed, which is precisely why 8i has made its tools and assets available for developers to create their own holograms. “It’s still uncharted waters,” St. Jean says. “The most important thing we need for the success of immersive computing is the creativity and vision from developers and creators for how this technology will change our lives every day. We’re excited to enable developers to create immersive human experiences by giving them the tools to build AR apps and VR experiences that engage audiences in an entirely new way.”
Realizing that new way is also dependent on augmented-reality glasses replacing phone or tablet-based iterations of holograms, since seeing holograms through a screen can limit the immersion of an experience. That, of course, requires the wave of VR and AR to take off further than it has, and we’re not quite there yet.
“Will there be this big moment where all of this kind of explodes? We mostly feel as though it’s going to continue evolving,” says St. Jean. “It does seem like there needs to be something more accessible than what we have now. Something smaller and easier and wireless, where the shared experiences of those augmented-reality glasses are cheap enough for everybody to get.” But once we get there? “It will be so emotional for people, in a really positive way. I think that’s going to be a really special gift for future generations.”