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Holograms and contemporary culture

Holograms are an ironic technology. They encompass a suite of techniques capable of astonishingly realistic imagery (in the right circumstances), but they’re associated with contrasting visions: on the one hand, ambitious technological dreams and, on the other, mundane and scarcely noticed hologram products. And today, probably more people have imagined or talked about holograms than have examined them first-hand. Holograms occupy an unusual no-man’s land in contemporary culture. Over nearly seventy years in development, their engineering achievements, commercial applications and anticipated future have fitted together uncomfortably. The result is a technology that inspires divergent uses and unstable forecasts.

Conceived after the Second World War, the first three-dimensional holograms – amazingly life-like images looming behind glass plates – were publicly revealed in the early 1960s. Encouraged by this technological progress, commercial firms and news media anticipated further improvements. Forecasters confidently predicted that holograms would become even more convincingly realistic: projected into space, visible from all directions and potentially incorporating other sensory cues (for example touch, or ‘haptic’ qualities, which have been a continuing line of research for holographers). Holograms had been expensive and difficult to produce, but developers invented ways of embossing holograms onto plastic and metal, which dramatically expanded the applications and market during the 1980s.

Despite their impressive visual properties, holograms remained challenging to light effectively. In uncontrolled environments, even the most sophisticated holograms could appear washed out, dim or fuzzy. Metal foil holograms, trialled for magazine advertisements and consumer items, could look distorted or distracting. Manufacturers adapted by making holographic images less three-dimensional, and by substituting intricate computer-generated patterns instead of imagery of real objects. The new holograms were much better for their applications – bright and reliably identifiable stickers for children’s books, eye-catching fashions such as gift-wrapping foil, and ‘authentication’ labels for identity documents and valuable merchandise – but owed little to the visual qualities of earlier holograms. From the 1990s, these less-demanding holographic products found wider applications, such as holographic ‘glitter’ adorning garments and cosmetics.

Pepper’s Ghost stage illusion (Marion, F. L’Optique (1867), Fig. 73)
Pepper’s Ghost stage illusion by Marion, F. L’Optique (1867), Fig. 73. Used with permission.

This trend towards simpler non-imaging uses for holograms took the commercial products in a different direction than forecasters had predicted. Promises of holographic media had inspired science fiction writers to imagine a hologram-rich future. These predictions were most compelling when depicted visually in science fiction movies and television. Star Wars imagined Princess Leia as a floating projection of light, and successive series of Star Trek represented a ‘holodeck’, then ‘holosuites’, and finally a holographic doctor materialized by computer-generated imagery. Video games from the 1990s recast holograms yet again: in Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 ‘mirage tanks’ generate holograms to masquerade as trees; in Crysis 2, a ‘holographic decoy’ can attract gunfire, while in Duke Nukem 3D a hologram is able to engage in battle. Such imagined technologies have become more familiar than real-world holograms to modern gamers. Needless to say, none of these capabilities is yet plausible, feasible or competitive with other technologies.

Popular expectations about holograms have extended from futuristic fiction to present-day understandings. Audiences have broadened the notion of holograms to any optical effect that appears to be three-dimensional or floating. Entertainment and electronics organizations carry significant responsibility here. For example, a Victorian stage illusion known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ has been the basis of theme park attractions such as Disneyland’s ‘Haunted House’ ride, the Hatsuni Miku ‘virtual star’ in Japan and the Tupac ‘hologram’ performance at the Coachella 2012 festival. But these striking illusions have been domesticated, too. CNN news coverage of the 2008 American election touted its remote reporter visualized ‘via hologram’ and interacting with her counterparts in the main news studio as cameras panned around them. As technologists soon complained, this misrepresented conventional blue-screen video technology to gullible viewers. And for younger audiences, it is difficult to find new hardware for 3-D tablet displays or augmented reality that has not been labelled ‘holographic’ by the manufacturer, reviewers or eager customers.

Thus optimism and credulity, in equal measure, have dogged popular notions about holograms in the early twenty-first century. Engineering achievements, consumer reality and popular anticipations about holograms jostle. Unsurprisingly, the growing disparity between public expectations and achievable goals is a matter of some dismay to practising holographers and firms.

Today, holograms are in our pockets (on credit cards and driving licenses) and in our minds (as gaming fantasies and ‘faux hologram’ performers). But the recurring question for producers and enthusiasts is: why aren’t holograms more often in front of our eyes? For the time being, it seems, the anticipated wonders of holograms have outpaced our ability to deliver them.

Featured image credit: £20 Holograms by Evan Bench. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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