Holograms have been one of science fiction’s most enduring themes for many years, but with recent advancements in the enabling technology, 5G networks and devices, is the past’s vision of the future finally upon us?

Today holographic technology is already being used to project live versions of executives miles away from their locations and resurrect dead musicians on stage for as-live performances, but it still feels a long way from being used in everyday communications.

As, perhaps you would expect, sector experts spoken to by Mobile World Live (MWL) are bullish on the future, although they have very different takes on the applications which will propel it out of the box office (and B movies) and into the mainstream.

While most mentioned the Star Wars Princess Leia-style hologram (which is beamed from a robot and contains a pre-recorded message rather than a live action call to action to fight the Empire) as either a consumer expectation, ambition or stereotype, the reality appears to be going in a very different direction.

Master researcher into the technology at Ericsson Ali El Essaili said he expected the images to be viewed through glasses, with the ever-improving design and simplicity of these devices a key factor helping drive adoption.

He also noted the use of edge, cloud, modern 5G networks and techniques including compression of 3D data means the industry is “just entering the moment…which allows us to start realising this holographic communication use case”.

“Evolution of the devices and the networks are definitely making it much more plausible today to finally see a real holographic solution on the market,” he added.

El Essaili noted “a lot of interest from industries” including healthcare in terms of the first uses for holograms. “This is an area where it is extremely important to be able to build this sort of trust with the other person,” he added, noting holograms offered interactions which were “more immersive, more emotional” than video and other electronic communications.

Missed chance?
The comparison with video calling is an interesting one, and maybe had mainstream hologram technology been available at the height of the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic those, rather than Zoom and its peers, would have been the go-to virtual communication method.

However, rather than viewing the locked-down pandemic audience as a missed opportunity, head of immersive (XR) at creative tech specialists Happy Finish, Jerome Botbol, believes the technology has been helped by events since 2020 and is being driven by emerging generations.

“Technology is evolving based on what’s possible, what’s feasible,” he told MWL, “but also it’s evolving based on what the need is for younger generations coming through, because ultimately they’re going to be the ones setting trends in the future”.

“Covid did help,” he claimed. “Because people stuck at home [were] trying to find new ways of communicating and elevating their communication [as were] brands, [assessing] how can they engage with their audiences.”

Ellen Van de Woestijne, VP strategic development at capsule hologram specialists ARHT, noted the projections offered a “different experience”, adding “of course our ambition is not to replace all the Zoom calls. I think there is place for Zoom calls, but there’s also place for this type of communication”.

ARHT’s technology delivers life-size 3D holograms of people, who are generally being broadcast live from a green-screen studio onto the front of a box roughly the size of a telephone box (pictured, right).

Van de Woestijne noted ARHT’s and other types of hologram technology are ideal for critical communication, C-level communications, influencers, and for experiences including beaming directors and actors to film premieres.

“It’s an experience,” she added. “The second next-best thing next to meeting the person.”

High-risk industry
Analog Devices VP for marketing systems and technology in the communications and cloud business unit Joe Barry believes the low latency and high-speed data transmissions could “revolutionise video conferencing and remote collaboration by providing immersive and life-like experiences”.

“Holograms have exerted a powerful pull on imaginations and with 5G adoption picking-up pace, holographic tech is becoming a reality,” he added.

However, like Van de Woestijne, Barry zoomed-in on the business applications highlighting “high-risk industries such as aviation, mining, and oil and gas exploration already use simulation-based learning. That’s why it’s easy to imagine how holographic tech could really be a game changer”.

“As 5G networks continue to advance, we can expect holograms to play an increasingly significant role in business communication, including remote collaboration, virtual events and teleconferencing.”

Botbol agreed a primary driver was the business and social media influencer markets. “Initially people were thinking it was a space where we can have 3D conversations with people,” he said. “That’s just face time. When it becomes interesting is when brands are able to create environments or create spaces in the wild, where they can talk to the fans. It’s not friends talking to friends, but brands talking to fans and audiences.”

Falling from the stars
While the inevitable link to science fiction has undoubtedly raised interest and a lot of links to classic TV and film, has it also unrealistically raised expectations and hampered progress?

Discussing the current state of the industry, Van de Woestijne said. “I see a lot of people still think holography is very unachievable, it’s still a Star Trek thing. Is it real? And how difficult is it? I think that’s still a blocker, getting the word out. If you look to a technology adoption curve, we’re still in the what I would call the early adopter phase.”

Sadly for those who associate the sci-fi vision as the future of holo-tech, Botbol had a sobering point. “I think when people start thinking about holograms, a lot of people think about Star Wars having Princess Leia pop up and that’s actually not what we would in industry class as a hologram”.

Maybe we shouldn’t be prepping our hologram SOS messages for our droids just yet.