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Are Holographic Television Sets a Possibility?

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The Holographic TV sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie, but it may actually be coming to an electronics retailer near you sooner than you might think.

In fact, in September 2016, the BBC demonstrated that a basic holographic television set could be constructed out of low-tech, low-cost materials. What the team from the BBC did was ask a local plastics company to create a simple acrylic pyramid shape that could rest on top of the viewing screen of a 46-inch flat screen TV. The team from the BBC then slightly adapted old archival footage – both from a London New Year’s Eve fireworks display and a dinosaur history documentary – so that these archived clips would display properly on the TV.

When the footage played – presto! – a holographic image would appear within the acrylic pyramid shape, appearing to float and move in the middle of the air. You can actually watch YouTube videos of this BBC demo to get an idea of how easily holographic images can be generated that fool the human eye.

However, here’s the catch – the BBC technology was really just a 21st century adaptation of an old 1860s Victorian era parlor trick and optical illusion known as “Pepper’s Ghost.” What John Henry Peppers discovered back in 1862 was that similar types of holographic images could be created if images are displayed at a certain angle, against a piece of reflective material held at an angle. (In fact, this is the same technology used by modern Teleprompters.) Imagine the surprise and dismay of audiences almost 150 years ago, when they saw a ghostly image appear to float in mid-air in the room next to them!

The holographic video is a parlor trick that anybody can create today using just a smartphone that plays YouTube videos and a few basic materials – a sharp knife, some graph paper, a clear CD case, tape and scissors. By using the graph paper to create a trapezoid with exact proportions (1” x 3.5” x 6”), and then cutting and taping pieces of the clear CD case to match those dimensions, it’s possible to re-create the type of acrylic pyramid that the BBC team created. When you place this pyramid on top of your smartphone and play a video on your phone, a ghostly holographic image appears to float in mid-air over your smartphone.

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Of course, when people talk about a holographic TV, they are really talking about more than just a visual illusion – they are talking about a real 3D image that appears to move in front of you. One area where these holographic images are already being used is within the entertainment industry, where holographic images of deceased stage performers can be projected onto a stage and seemingly interact with other members on stage. The most famous example of this is perhaps the Tupac Shakur hologram from 2012, in which the murdered rapper appeared on stage for one last time with fellow rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog at the Coachella music festival.

In New York State, in fact, they are actually building a holographic museum, in which visitors will be able to view holograms of their favorite historical figures, in much the same way that people once attended wax history museums to see life-size versions of real historical figures. Using that same technology, Michael Jackson was able to “appear” on stage at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

The next stage in the development of a real holographic TV will involve the use of what experts refer to as “mixed reality” – a combination of “augmented reality” and “virtual reality” in which users strap on headsets and view holographic images in front of them that appear to be real. In fact, the line between the real world and the virtual world could become so blurred, that it’s actually preferable to remain in the virtual world for as long as possible. That’s actually the premise of a bestselling book about virtual reality called “Ready Player One” – it’s already being adapted by legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg and could hit movie screens by 2018.

To understand the future of holographic TVs, it’s important to understand the important work that Microsoft is doing with its most innovative creation yet – the HoloLens, which the Seattle company is billing as the “first fully self-contained holographic computer enabling you to interact with high-definition holograms in the world.” This is perhaps the closest yet that we have come to the blurring of the digital world with the real world.

And it’s not just a science fiction dream – at the end of March 2016, Microsoft actually started shipping $300 developer kits. Known as “Project Baraboo” within Microsoft, this holographic initiative is based around the innovative work that was done to create the Kinect for the Xbox in 2010. With the Kinect, you are able use your voice and gestures to simulate a movement in the virtual world, such as playing tennis or evading alien intruders. It is truly a natural user interface, and one that immerses the user in the gaming experience.

There are plenty of innovative uses for such holographic technology within a true holographic TV. It’s easy to see how this could become a core part of any gaming experience played on the TV. And, as Microsoft explains in the trailer video for the HoloLens, it could be used for rapid prototyping (in which you change a prototype by simply interacting with a 3D holographic image in front of you), for sharing ideas with colleagues (in which holographic representations of your colleagues follow you around wherever you go), and in new ways to educate and learn (in which holographic images – like those BBC dinosaurs – appear in front of you to illustrate certain concepts).

Putting all this together – the BBC holographic TV, the work with entertainment industry holograms and the exciting new developments in mixed reality such as the Microsoft HoloLens – it’s possible to get a glimpse of the future. Most likely, it will involve a large television screen, some type of “performance space” between the TV and the couch, and a special headset that you wear while watching the TV. Theoretically, you would be able to watch the action that’s happening on the screen – as well as action taking place off-screen, which might appear as holographic images to the left or right of the performance area. And, of course, with extras such as special haptic gloves or other user interfaces, you might be able to interact, touch and play with the holographic images right in front of you. Your brain would literally “trick” you into thinking that these marvelous holographic images on the TV were actually real!

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