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  • Mustafa Shah

Can Holograms Replace Video Calls?

With the coronavirus pandemic halting much worldwide travel since March 2020, the drive to use holograms, 3D light projections of people, as a more lifelike, immersive, sensory alternative to video chats has grown. Los Angeles-based company Portl is one of the pioneers of this technology.

Portl creates portals that are about 8 feet tall and they are computerized boxes made out of glass. Inside the portal, a hologram of a person can appear. They also have built-in speakers so that the hologram's voice can be heard, and they also include cameras and microphones so that the hologram and the people watching can both hear and see.

The individual who appears in the hologram only needs a camera, a simple backdrop, and another set of speakers and microphones where he or she is physically standing, which may very well be on the other side of the planet from the portal machine. The software app of Portl then takes care of the rest. It can detect where the portal is in the world and connects the user to it. A person can also connect to as many portals as they would like.

Mr. Nussbaum, the CEO and Founder of Portl, also stated there is no latency (delay) in the video and audio. Additionally, he said that "were it not for the sheet of glass in front of the hologram you'd think the person was actually [standing] there. In fact, if there is no light on the glass so that you cannot see it reflecting, then you do think the person is actually there."

The Portl system is aimed at business customers and is currently also being used by other firms such as Netflix and T-Mobile. The portals cost from $60,000 each, so they are certainly expensive, although the company says they can be rented for considerably less.

"In a few years' time, this is going to become a regular way of communicating between offices," adds Mr. Nussbaum.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has also been working on hologram technology. Their hologram communication technology is based around a headset called HoloLens 2. They cost about $3,500 per unit which is much cheaper than Portl’s system, but it is also a lot less advanced and the holograms are not lifelike.

Instead, when two or more headset wearers call each other, their holograms are projected in front of each of them as somewhat cartoon-like avatars that appear to be standing in the same room. Although they don’t appear to be real people, they can interact with each other.

"It would appear that they are in the same physical space, and they could walk around a virtual table and collaborate on things," said Greg Sullivan, director of mixed reality at Microsoft.

German engineering group ThyssenKrupp has already started using the Microsoft Hololens 2. They are one of the world’s largest manufacturers of lifts or elevators. They use the technology by having professional engineers connect with local technicians and help guide them through the work they need to do. This saves them a lot of time and money as the engineers now don’t have to travel to a specific location to fix the problem occurring in the machinery; instead, they can instruct locals exactly what to do by guiding them.

Some other hologram-based companies are more focused on the consumer market rather than the business owners. A San Diego-based company named Ikin will be launching a device that you can clip to your phone and it will project into the air a transparent 3D hologram of the person you are having a video call with. The hologram will not be as advanced as Portl’s design, but many companies are stepping in on the idea and working towards a more holographic world.

Although these holograms sound exciting, there are still downsides to them. Gordon Wetzstein, an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford University believes that holograms are more effective for communication than video conferencing because you can create eye contact and you can read subtle cues. But he also believes that problems could occur in the future if these holographic images become so real that distinguishing them from an actual person will become impossible.

"If you can create digital or synthetic experiences that get closer and closer to how you perceive reality, you're more vulnerable to being manipulated," says Mr. Wetzstein.

One of the Portl’s earliest investors was Tim Draper, who was also an early backer of both Skype and Tesla. Portl's Mr. Nussbaum says he is confident that hologram technology is going to replace standard video screens in video conferencing in five years: "We'll replace every single digital display kiosk in every mall, in every lobby, in no time. This will be the new way that businesses will want to present their content whether live or recorded."


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