VR is hailed as one of the most promising directions for cinema. Here Peter Knight argues the case for another possible direction — holographic projection
Imagine going to the cinema in 2023. Does it involve the prospect of a great white shark leaping from the outside of the cinema façade to try and savage you on the pavement, as famously predicted in the holo-poster for Jaws 19 in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II? Or perhaps, when you enter the auditorium, rather than sitting in straight rows, the configuration is more like a theatre in the round, with action taking place centre stage? Maybe you will be greeted by a “holo-usher” that guides you ethereally to your seat?
With new visual technology, higher resolution projectors and displays are we about to see the wider use of holographic projection? Could it be that in the next five years there will be an auditorium next to the IMAX, LED screen, iSense or other PLF offering that will be exclusively reserved for holographic content? And if not there, will it be used elsewhere in the cinema?
A bit of background
Whatever direction the technology takes, the link between holographic projection and cinema is well-established. Holographic technology was first developed by a Hungarian-British physicist, Dennis Gabor CBE, at British Thomson-Houston (BTH) in Rugby, Warwickshire, in 1947, when he was looking for methods to improve the resolution of electron microscopes. Gabor’s initial experiments used a filtered mercury arc light source, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and the invention of the laser that the modern form of holographic projection was first realised. For his work, Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1971.
Tracing its roots back to the 1880s, BTH is synonymous with British 35mm film projectors, but the earliest forms of holographic “trick” predated that company by a good 20 years and Gabor’s work by 70 years or so. Popularised as a theatrical illusion, “Pepper’s Ghost” was an early technique developed by inventor Henry Dircks and refined by Professor John H. Pepper, lecturer at the Royal Polytechnic Institute, London — famous also for being the birthplace of British cinema. Pepper’s entertainment created the illusion of a ghost able to walk through walls using an image projected onto a surface, often of non-opaque glass at right angles to the projector and the audience. This creates the impression of the image being somewhere else. The Victorians placed actors in the orchestra pit and then a piece of glass set at angles on to the stage. In the modern world it is possible to achieve a greater variety of applications with the addition of a projector instead of an actor.
Holograms are frequently used in the museum and tourist industries to enhance displays and exhibitions, but, like Pepper’s Ghost, their use is limited to an illusory novelty rather than a medium in its own right that essentially allows 3D story-telling without the need for glasses. Outlined below are some other sectors in which holographic technology is fast-developing:
The marketing world is often a testbed for innovation and has been an early adopter of holographic technology. An example of this is courtesy of the British company Kino-mo. While any holograms that have been on the market previously have tended to be expensive, thanks to time-consuming installations and the need for dedicated space, Kino-mo holo-displays provide a cost-effective, scalable alternative. At CES 2018, Kino-mo demonstrated its new product, Hypervsn. Hypervsn is a cutting-edge visual solution that uses a different technique to other holograms. Instead of adopting the principles of Pepper’s Ghost, it uses Persistence of Vision that lies at the heart of the film projector. A rig that consists of several spinning bars of LEDs are programmed to be on at specific times, the result is a floating image that is created in the air. Hypervsn is suited to POS and foyer applications and is being rolled out now, notably in “destination” shopping centres and upscale bars where specific brands and products can be given the wow factor.
One of the most notable formats that hologram technology has been used for thus far is what is now referred to as Digital Resurrection. Among others, EyeIlusion is a specialist production company in the music sector that has refined use of Pepper’s Ghost-style illusions to such an extent that it is possible to see (usually dead) celebrities, ‘brought back to life’ to perform in some way. Famously, Michael Jackson appeared on stage at the 2014 Billboard awards five years after his death. In 2018, Roy Orbison will once again be touring the world, 30 years after his death — in the UK over 70% of the tickets have already been sold. Similarly, Frank Zappa (1940-1993) is back on tour with his surviving band members.Telepresence
Many in the business world will be used to video conferencing using tools such as Skype. The ability to interact with colleagues and customers on screen as well as the ability to share presentations directly makes a big difference to the effectiveness of intercontinental meetings. A development from traditional video conferencing is telepresence conferencing, which attempts to give the impression that participants are in the same room. Currently it often means half a boardroom table with a large video wall on the other side of it, often reflecting two locations. Holographic telepresence allows for people to be “present”, as imagined in the virtual meeting of spies in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service. This is a conferencing technology already marketed by a company, MDH Hologram, which, in 2014, projected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to 126 sites simultaneously during his election campaign.
DIY on your mobile phone
Aside from professional implementations, an increasingly popular format is the creation of a holographic viewer, crafted using a mobile phone and a reflective piece of plastic, often fabricated from old CD cases. An upended pyramid of Perspex placed over the screen allows the projection of a floating image seen within the pyramid. There is an ever-growing amount of content on YouTube (search “hologram pyramid”, but, it is limited to the novelty side of the spectrum rather than a meaningful take on the medium’s cinematic potential.
Use in cinema?
With all the above in mind is it actually possible that holographic technology will make its way out of the novelty sphere into the cinema environment in earnest? In the same way that technologies such as IMAX started out showing mainly natural history content in a new, impressive format, could it be that holographic projection finds its feet the same way?
in cinemas: Advertising, Mostly?
As illustrated marketing and promotional companies are already making extensive use of holographic technology — and this is where initial installations in cinemas are likely to be seen, taking foyer content a step beyond video screens to promote upcoming movies and food and beverage offers. Products such as Hypervsn could be adopted to catch the audience’s attention or even to direct them towards the right auditorium. Already it is possible to create holographic posters very much in the vein of the Jaws 19 shark attack scene.
What, however, of taking holograms into the auditorium as a form of presentation? Could it work? Would it allow 3D films to be viewed without 3D glasses? Clearly, the auditorium would need some revisions to adapt to new technology, but not necessarily a huge amount — it would primarily involve projection onto a special “photonic reactive” (invisible to the eye) mesh screen often used in theatres. The principal challenge would lie in the production of the movies. It would require a new language that puts mise en scène literally inside the auditorium rather than on the screen.
Could holographic technology allow for a more theatrical experience and would it allow for other types of content, such as sports to be shown in a different way? Well, in October last year, Hologram USA opened the first of 100 proposed hologram theatres across the US in Hollywood. These theatres currently present mainly artist resurrection shows, natural wonders, CGI dinosaurs and the like, but it doesn’t mean that, in the future, as with IMAX, there won’t be an expansion of the type of content found there.
Out of all the possible opportunities that holographic projection offers, event cinema may be the area that could benefit the most. It could truly bring events to life in front of geographically dispersed audiences, making the experience more closely reflect the theatrical. The key challenge would lie in the processing of the live event and developing cameras and other techniques to enable it. Could holographic projection fuse the live experience enabling the audience to go even further behind the screen?
New filmmaking techniques
Holographic projection would require new storytelling techniques to exploit the 3D 360 experience to its full potential, but like all new technology that has been employed in filmmaking, from wide colour gamuts, immersive sound and 3D, this would develop over time and additional tools would make it easier for such technology to be incorporated into production workflows.
While we may not see a holographic feature in a cinema tomorrow, it is feasible that in a few years’ time this will be just as common as IMAX or 4D. It could just be that Princess Leia’s famous holographic message immortalised in Star Wars could indeed become a reality in the auditorium.
No matter what technology is deployed, holographic projection or otherwise, the story matters most. Success of holographic presentation arguably will rely on the ability of movie makers to see value in the technology for captivating audiences.