Where the Holograms At?

Microsoft recently unveiled a new demo for their HoloLens and my inner child did a little backflip. I remember playing arcade games like Sega’s Time Traveler or Holosseum as a kid and thinking that I was witnessing the future of entertainment. In my mind, a working Holodeck was right around the corner. Then, almost as quickly as their popularity had soared, the games slid back into obscurity. While they were cool for the time, the technical limitations of the day prevented them from becoming anything more than a passing fad, a brief glimpse into the possibilities of tomorrow’s entertainment.

Fast-forward twenty years, and video games have become a multibillion dollar industry. I’ve seen the remarkable things that computers can do to enhance the art of storytelling, but holograms seem to be relegated to the realm of science fiction – until now. Several companies are currently developing interactive holographic displays, including the HoloLens, MetaPro Space Glasses, CastAR, and MagicLeap. As an example, MagicLeap is a device that aims to project holographic images directly onto a person’s retina. Its creators recently released a video that shows off some of their system’s gaming capabilities.

Meanwhile, it seems that Google has learned from its failures with Google Glass, and instead of shying away from augmented reality they have doubled down. By investing over $500 million in MagicLeap and filing for numerous patents for Google Contact Lenses, they’re banking on holograms having a profound (and profitable) role in our media future. Other companies like Ostendo are developing tiny holographic projectors to fit inside smartphones. If these trends continue, the future may very well come “alive” with digital constructs.

Devices like the HoloLens don’t actually create the types of holograms I envisioned as a child, but the possibilities for this tech are promising, with possible ramifications for education, medicine, science, and design. But I’ve been waiting too long for the fun stuff: for now I want to focus on their entertainment value.

Microsoft's HoloLens technology in action
Microsoft’s HoloLens technology in action. Image courtesy of Microsoft Sweden, used under a CC BY 2.0 license (https://flic.kr/p/pWRry3).

The HoloLens demo shows a person taking their movies and placing them on any flat surface, making a big screen out of any blank wall. In the future, movies may not look like they do today. Who needs a screen when holographic actors can play out a scene in your living room, using your surroundings as props? Why just listen to music when you can have your favorite artist rock out in your bedroom? The storytelling aspects extend beyond just traditional video games and movies. Ice-Bound, a half-book, half-game, choose-your-own-adventure-type story, is an interesting concept that aims to bring books to life. The story revolves around an AI program that was created to serve as a simulacrum of a long-dead author and complete his unfinished masterpiece. The human player and the AI work together to finish the story and explore the secrets of a mysterious polar research station. To experience the Ice-Bound’s full story, players need both the physical book and an iPad or PC; the story can’t be completed without using both devices.

Another cool project, which aims to ensure you never get a good night’s sleep again, is the video game Night Terrors, which uses augmented reality to turn your own home into the scene of a hellish horror movie. After you walk around your house using the camera on your phone to map the environment, the game inserts an assortment of zombies, ghosts, and demons to stalk you from room to room, as you try to save a young girl trapped by demons somewhere within your home. The creators of the game set out “to create the scariest game ever made,” but Night Terrors plays a lot like an interactive movie where the player becomes the protagonist. The game is still currently under development and seeking funding on Indiegogo, but if this is the near future of augmented reality storytelling, then I’m all in.

Last year for April Fools’ Day Google pranked thousands of people when they announced the release of a (fake) game, which was supposed to provide the winner with a (ultimately fake) job opportunity at Google. The position they were hiring for was Pokémon Master, and the prerequisite for the job was to use the Google Maps app to embark on a globe-spanning trek to track down and catch 150 Pokémon hidden around the world. While this was just an elaborate prank, it provides another glimpse of how augmented reality can create stories, and even adventures, from our everyday surroundings. I think that the ultimate goal of any form of storytelling is to immerse the reader (or viewer, player, listener, etc.) in the world of the narrative: to have him or her relate to the emotions and concerns of the characters, and take an active interest in the events that transpire.

An exciting idea I’ve seen crop outside of storytelling (or perhaps in conjunction with it) is the AI companions that permeate the AR landscape (digiscape?). In demo videos these companions are cute, cartoon-like avatars that liven up a virtual space, but in the future they could be so much more. When AI gets more sophisticated, these avatars might become a much more prominent part of our lives. When they are capable of learning and adapting to our needs, monitoring our routines, and anticipating our behavior, it’s not hard to imagine growing attached to them, perhaps even forming a friendship. I know I would have to program my companion with a dark sense of humor and an eye for mischief, and maybe a penchant for making obscure pop culture references. It would definitely have to know where the best tacos in town could be found and it might have to indulge me in impromptu rap battles every now and then. A person’s companion might be with them at all times, working silently in the background unless it’s summoned. Depending on their programming, AI might give each digital persona a “life” of its own, allowing it to interact with other people and their avatars autonomously.

It’s hard to tell where this technology will take us, or if it will even catch on. Right now, the holographic lenses that are available are still in the thousand dollar range and outside the average consumer’s budget. If these technologies are expected to have mass appeal, that price tag will have to come down. Another thing is the “cool” factor; speaking from experience, while I do value function over form, when it comes to wearables I cannot completely discount the latter. Nobody wants to wear a device that elicits a negative response (like how Google Glass users became referred to as “Glassholes”). I also value mobility and versatility so I am reluctant to wear a big, clunky piece of technology on my head. Whether this technology catches on with the broad public will determine if we’re on the cusp of a holo-revolution, but with the rate at which this tech is advancing, I think that when the holograms do arrive en masse, they’ll be here to stay.