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Holograms, live onstage

Once limited to movies, they head into the real world.

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To truly be a hologram, “different people should be able to see the image from different viewpoints and have it appear exactly like a person would appear from those angles,” Debevec says.

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These flat images are created by employing a modern version of a 150-year old visual trick known as “Pepper’s ghost.” Used by Victorian magicians to create stage illusions, the trick projects an image at a 90-degree angle onto a transparent but reflective surface, usually glass, mounted at a 45-degree angle. The result is an image that appears to be 3-D.

Telecommunications giant Cisco and the hologram wizards at Musion Systems in London updated Pepper’s ghost for the 21st century.

The new project, called On-Stage TelePresence, replaces the lights and glass with mylar screens, high-definition cameras, and fiber-optic networks. (See graphic, page 13.)

They demonstrated TelePresence in late 2007 by allowing Cisco chairman John Chambers to share a stage in Bangalore, India, with his colleague, Marthin de Beer, who was in San Jose, Calif., at the time. The two men appear to be standing side-by-side, chatting, and reacting to each other’s movements.

Ian O’Connell, operations director at Musion, says that he’d like to see such stage holograms enable teachers to beam into classrooms at understaffed schools, chart-topping entertainers to perform in stadiums while simultaneously appearing in smaller venues, and mega-church pastors to preach to community congregations.

The virtual boardroom
Cisco has sold to several companies teleconferencing technology that uses hologram-like images to create virtual conference tables. Executives in two different buildings sit down at tables outfitted with high-definition cameras and monitors. The systems captures one-half of a table and streams the images into the other building.

The resulting compilation creates the illusion that the two half-tables are a whole and that all the participants are gathered in the same place.

“The principle is most similar to that of a webcam,” says Mr. O’Connell. “It’s a stationary, head-and-shoulders view of people seated at a table view.”

David Hsieh, Cisco’s vice president of emerging technologies, says that creating full-size 3-D images for concerts or boardrooms is possible, but complicated. The problem is science.

Light has to bounce off something in order for human eyes to see the image. Scientists have developed several workarounds to create truly 3-D images, including mist, intersecting lasers, and spinning mirrors. But these techniques are too complex for regular use, Mr. Hsieh says.

Right now, the best 3-D image you could get practically would be small – much like Princess Leia’s hologram.

“Ideally, what you want is a life-size image of the person you’re talking to,” says Hsieh. “It’d be a bit weird having a conference with people the size of Barbie and Ken.” But, he adds, “we firmly believe that it’s possible we’ll be using full-scale, 3-D holograms in the next decade or so.”