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Holograms and the technological sublime

The hologram is a spectacular invention of the modern era: an innocuous artefact that can miraculously generate three-dimensional imagery. Yet this modern experience has deep roots. Holograms are part of a long lineage; the ability to generate visual ‘shock and awe’ has, in fact, been an important feature of new optical technologies over the past century and a half.

From the 1850s until the First World War, generations of viewers immersed themselves in the depths of stereo views to explore exotic locales and unsettling scenes. The Victorian stereoscope created an insatiable public appetite for novel visual experiences. Its American populariser, Oliver Wendell Holmes, noted its “frightful amount of detail” that encouraged the mind to “feel its way into the very depths of the picture.” Dangerous perspectives and technological accidents became important sub-genres. Viewing the shocking visual aftermath of conflagrations, train wrecks, and typhoons proved popular, and battlefields held a vicarious fascination – akin, perhaps, to trending topics in social media today. Stereo views generated a burgeoning pastime and profitable trade around the world.

The flip side of these expanding markets was that the viewing public became increasingly keen for new visual surprises. This was an age of visual tricks, when ‘scientific optics’ could reveal disorienting new illusory effects; the creators and promoters of stereoscopes also introduced optical toys such as the kaleidoscope, zoetrope, and magic lantern. These devices dazzled the viewer with vivid mutating shapes, transient animated scenes or spectacular projections. These amusements combined surprise, spectacle and entertainment to extend the visual vocabulary of Victorian audiences.

A view of the inside of the Magic Lantern by The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A view of the inside of the Magic Lantern by The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the impacts of stereography and optical illusions were supplanted, in turn, by new technologies that gave imagery a new vibrancy and jolt of reality. Cinema extended the perceptions of audiences in its own ways. The Lumière brothers’ 1895 film of an approaching steam locomotive famously startled audiences, and editing tricks, colour imagery and wide-screen formats kept successive generations on the edges of their seats. Audiences after the Second World War were equally, if briefly, captivated by the spectacle of 3-D movies. Viewers of the 1952 adventure film Bwana Devil had close encounters with leaping lions and near-tactile romantic scenes. Within a year, over thirty 3-D movies, relying on more than a dozen commercial processes, appeared on cinema screens: House of Wax contrasted the thrill of a three-dimensional fight with a comically deep table tennis game, and Dial M for Murder had audiences avoiding a lunging hand.

So when holograms were first exhibited they joined a panoply of optical techniques that had successively shaken up new audiences. This reaction of disorientation, wonder and even fright – what historian David Nye dubbed ‘the technological sublime’ – has been a common experience in modern times.

The first three-dimensional holograms publicly exhibited in 1964 awed audiences with their baffling realism. Bathed in speckly-red laser light, these featureless glass plates acted like windows onto another world to reveal three-dimensional scenes that could be meters deep. Later varieties of hologram exhilarated fresh spectators by recreating full-colour and even animated views, extending the tradition of the zoetrope. The ethereal images could even straddle the surface of holograms, and yet evade the viewer’s touch. Holograms were later to be found popping out of magazines or shape-shifting on art gallery walls. For over two decades, waves of innovation in holograms startled audiences with fresh perceptual tricks.

Even so, hologram technology did not hold centre stage for long. For their first viewers, the wonders of holograms were shared with the equally remarkable optical properties of laser beams. And during the mid-Sixties, Op Art — reproduced via magazines, television, exhibitions, and fashion — disconcerted wider audiences. But an even more democratic mass experience of the decade was the psychedelic light show. Strobe lights, enveloping screens and the abstract melting shapes of brilliant liquid dyes could reliably disorient and awe even jaded observers.

Yet surprise is evanescent. Each of these sensory shocks exhilarated and confounded new audiences but eventually became less compelling. Technological innovation and novelty seemed essential to reproduce the sublime experience, but the fleeting effect proved challenging to maintain. Physicist Stephen Benton, later a professor at MIT and a well-known figure in the field of holography, recalled how the head of Polaroid Corporation encouraged impressive ‘demos’ and perpetual surprises from his staff: “as long as – when you bumped into Edwin Land – you had something in your pocket he hadn’t seen before, that’s all it took!”

The same has been true for at least five generations of audiences. The history of optical technologies suggests that we crave fresh visual experiences, and that only a few of them have enduring impact. New ways of capturing that visual delight continue to exercise the minds of hologram innovators today.

Featured image credit: Op Art Bench (Part 3) by Scott Symonds. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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