Holography and Virtual Reality Change the Way We Look at the World.

by Ken White

Front page Living Section Technology featured

Imagine your favorite sitcom characters popping into your living room in full, holographic three-dimensional reality, without the need of a conventional screen.

That science fiction scenario was played out in the recent futuristic television mini-series “Wild Palms,” but it may become science fact soon, says Jeff Allen, an expert on holography who believes the technology that can make a 3-D photographic image without a lens is about to change the way we see movies and television, and may even revolutionize the newspaper industry.

Allen is a futurist, the kind of guy who reminds you of kids you know in high school who were into science fiction and computers, long before it was cool to be interested in either.

Get him wound up and he speaks excitedly about things that, 20 years ago, would have made him a candidate for the laughing academy.

“It’s the Gutenberg press of the future,” Allen says of holography. In the near future, there will be “mass produced, moving 3-D images. We’re close to doing what ‘Wild Palms’ did. You’ll be able to see someone moving in front of you,” in forms like the sitcom seen in the miniseries.

It’s just a matter of merging technologies, Allen says. “The whole thing is exploding now, there are new innovations every day.”

Currently, virtual reality is getting most of the media interest because “it’s easy and accessible,” he says.

Virtual reality immerses you into a scene through the use of a helmet that brings an image close to the eyes and allows you to interact with the computer-generated scene with an electronic glove.

“In most virtual reality, you’re seeing a screen right in front of your eyes. That gives it a sense of dimension, of reality. It’s a method of creating your own experience. There will be a shared control of the outcome. The artist will make the environment and the choices available. This will give people the idea that they can be part of the experience. It frees you from past concepts.”

Allen isn’t surprised that virtual reality’s uses have extended to the sexual.

With virtual reality’s immersion in a scene, a computer simulation, of a sexual nature, can have stimulation possibilities for the viewer.

“When you start to play with virtual reality you can interact with anything, and the erotic aspect always seems to come up,” Allen says.

But it’s holography that has most of Allen’s attention.

The technology, invented in 1947 by Hungarian-born engineer Dennis Gabor (who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in physics for the invention), had its breakthrough in 1970, “but it took a long time before people knew the work,” Allen says. Its uses have so far been limited to counterfeit-proof images on credit cards, as well as pendants, belt buckles, postage stamps, advertising displays, magazine covers and exhibition displays.

A hologram is made by using a device that splits a single laser beam in to two beams, one of which illuminates a scene and reflects the image onto film. The second beam, called a reference beam, shines on the film. The reflected image and the reference beam interfere with each other and form a pattern on the film.

Allen, whose business card for his company, Interactive Entertainment of Sausalito, Calif., bears the holographic image of a rose opening up, first became interested in the medium in the early 1970s.

He also has one of the largest collections of holograms in the world.

Allen showed pieces from that collection at various colleges and museums in the 1970s and mid-1980s before turning to fairs as a way to push awareness of holography and virtual reality.

His exhibits have drawn up to 30,000 people per day. “I’ve been trying to increase people’s science awareness. The more the public knows about it the more open they are to it. There has been resistance because people fear it or don’t know anything about it.”

One of Allen’s most popular images is of a handgun. Because of holography’s ability to show an object from a variety of angles, the eye is fooled into thinking the handgun has heft and depth, yet it’s only a flat image the thickness of a pane of glass.

Another mind-bender is an image of a microscope that, when you look through the eyepiece, reveals what the microscope is “viewing.”

In the future, holography will go way beyond the images we see today, Allen believes.

There will be computer-generated holograms, and holographic cinema where patrons “will go to see live performances that go beyond the live stage performances of today. We have the technology to do it now,” Allen says.

The newspaper you’re now reading one day may be done as a hologram. Allen says one hologram would be able to contain up to 200 pages of text, which could be accessed merely by tilting the hologram in your hands.

So far, holographic images have been “so impressive that the subject matter hasn’t been important. The impact always gets people.”

Major breakthroughs I the technology aren’t coming from the usual quarters, such as big corporations, Allen says. “The people really doing the breakthroughs are people in garages and in privately funded labs.”

Over time, technology like holography changes our perspectives on the world, Allen says.

“We’re thinking more comprehensively now. We’re more aware of our world and what it is. People once thought the Earth was flat and they were thinking that way. There’s an evolution going on in creativity through the use of technology. There’s going to be a change in how we see reality, which will change what reality is.”

But Allen doesn’t see the dark premise of “Wild Palms” coming to fruition.

He envisions a holographic room that a real person can walk through.

“It will be more about entertainment than manipulation of society,” he says. “Technology’s purpose is to show how great life is. Life is the miracle, not the technology.”