Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope…: Holograms and their use in cinema

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A version of this article first appeared in the March 2018 edition of Cinema Technology Magazine

Plenty has been written about the technological future of cinema with, virtual reality being hailed as one of the most promising potential directions the medium will head. Here Peter Knight argues the case for another possible direction — holographic projection — itself based on a 17th century British invention.



Imagine going to the cinema in 2023. What is the experience like? Does it involve the prospect of a giant 3D 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 cinema auditorium, rather than sitting in straight rows, the configuration is circular, more like the theatre in the round, with action taking place centre stage? Maybe instead of ushers checking your ticket you will be greeted instead by a holographic representation that guides you ethereally to your seat?


With new modern visual technology and higher resolution projectors and displays are we about to see the wider use of holographic technology not only in everyday use, but within the cinema? Is it possible that in the next five years that there will be an auditorium next to the IMAX, LED Screen, iSense or other PLF offering that will be exclusively reserved for holographic projection? And if not there, will it be used elsewhere within the cinema?



A bit of background

Whatever direction the technology takes, the link between holographic projection and the cinema is already 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 the 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 an illusion of a ghost being able to walk through walls and the like 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 achieved this by having the 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 or display device instead of an actor.

A developing technology?

Holograms are frequently used within 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 the testbed for innovation and this is one area that 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 ever been on the market previously have tended to be expensive, thanks to time-consuming installations and the need for a dedicated space, Kino-mo holo-displays provide a cost-effective, scalable alternative. At CES 2018, Kino-mo was demonstrating its new product called Hypervsn. Hypervsn™ is a cutting-edge visual solution for creating, managing and displaying unique 3D video content with holographic effect. The system 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 already beginning to be rolled out at various locations for marketing purposes, notably in “destination” shopping centres and upscale bars where specific brands and products can be given an impactful wow factor.



Digital Resurrection

One of the most notable and impressive 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 the use of Pepper’s Ghost-style illusions to such an extent that now 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 is due to go back on tour with several of his surviving band members, despite his demise in 1993.



Many in the business world will be used to the experience of video conferencing using tools such as Skype, especially if they work internationally. 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 fellow participants are in the same room. Currently, that often means half a boardroom table with a large video wall on the other side of it, often reflecting two locations. With holographic telepresence, it allows for people to be “present” in the same room as you, as imagined in the virtual board meeting of spies in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service. This is a conferencing technology already being marketed by a company called MDH Hologram who, in 2014, projected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to 126 sites simultaneously during his election campaign.

DIY on your mobile phone

Aside from the more 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 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, again, it is largely limited in scope to the novelty side of the spectrum rather than a meaningful demonstration of 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 and 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 and impressive format, could it be that holographic projection will find its feet in the same way?


Advertising in Foyers.

As illustrated above, marketing and promotional companies are already beginning to make extensive use of holographic technology — and this is where initial installations within cinemas are likely to be seen. Taking foyer content another step beyond simply the video screens in foyer areas to promote upcoming movies, but also to bring some magic to the promotion of food and beverages. Products such as Hypervsn could be adopted to catch the audience’s attention or even to direct them towards the right auditorium. Going beyond the existing moving video walls in the corridors leading to the auditoriums, it is already possible to create holographic posters very much in the vein of the Jaws 19 shark attack foretold back in 1989.



But what about taking holograms into the auditorium as a form of presentation, that sits alongside IMAX, Dolby Vision or similar? 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 as 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 places mise en scène literally inside the auditorium rather than on the screen at the front.


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?


In October last year, Hologram USA opened the first of 100 proposed hologram theatres across America 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 likely to be found there.


Event cinema

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 cinematic experience more closely reflect the theatrical. The key challenge would lie in the processing of the live event and developing the cameras and other techniques to enable it. Could holographic projection fuse the live experience enabling the cinema audience to go even further behind the screen than is now possible?


New filmmaking techniques

Holographic storytelling will require a 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 to mention a few, this would develop in the fullness of time and additional tools would make it easier for such technology to be incorporated into film production workflows. While it may be that we are not going to see a holographic feature film in a cinema tomorrow, it is feasible that in a few years’ time this will be just as common as IMAX or 4D is now. With the continuation of the development, it could just be that Princess Leia’s famous holographic communication immortalised in Star Wars could indeed become a reality within the cinema auditorium.


The truth is that, no matter what technology is deployed, holographic projection or otherwise, the story matters the most. The success of holographic presentation arguably will rely purely upon the ability of movie makers to see any value in the technology to captivate an audience.



Sources/Further Reading



Explaining Peppers Ghost Illusion with Ray Optics:


New Regal Theater to reopen as a hologram theater in October


Glimm Screen International


Pepper’s Ghost – A historical overview