Chasing the Hologram
How Shawn Frayne and Looking Glass Factory are working to prevent a dystopian headset-only future.
Marty and the shark
It wasn’t the hoverboards. It wasn’t the flying Delorean that could travel through time. When a ten-year-old Shawn Frayne saw Back to the Future II in 1989, a different image captured his imagination and set him on a decades-long quest.
“For me, the obsession with reaching that cinematic dream of the hologram started after I saw the shark gobble up Marty,” Frayne says, recalling the scene in which an advertisement for Jaws 19 springs to life and appears to swallow Michael J. Fox’s hapless protagonist, Marty McFly, who has just been deposited in a speculative version of 2015.
Frayne constantly refers to “the dream of the hologram” and “the chase for the hologram” with casual, not-if-but-when enthusiasm. And he believes that he and his team at Looking Glass Factory, the Brooklyn-based company he founded with Alex Hornstein, are close to realizing this dream.
We spoke to Frayne as the team prepared to debut the Looking Glass, their new holographic display, now live on Kickstarter. The tabletop device, which looks a bit like a small aquarium filled with light, inserts a bit of virtual space into the real world. Digitally rendered 3D models of people, animals, and other objects move around the box, responding to users’ hand gestures thanks to an integration with a spatial sensor.
In one demo, a hyper-realistic frog gazes at a flame that you move with your hand. In another, a Shaolin monk performs a sequence of Tai Chi moves, filmed in astonishing detail using a volumetric camera rig.
“The goal is to make a system that lets groups of people — without anything on their heads — see and interact with the virtual world,” Frayne says, drawing a distinction between his approach and the goggle-based VR and AR systems that have become increasingly familiar.
“I want it to be as casual to interact with advanced 3D content as sitting around a campfire or listening to a radio program with your friends.”
Chasing the hologram, with some detours along the way
Technically, the Looking Glass is a volumetric light-field display, not a conventional hologram (think of the shiny emblems that you find on credit cards). It creates the illusion of three dimensionality by scattering 45 slightly different views of a 3D model at precise angles. We interpret this spray of images as a solid form, similar to the way we perceive the rapid succession of still frames in a movie as movement.
When hologram purists question his use of the term to describe the Looking Glass, Frayne is respectful but unswayed. “I think that ship has sailed,” he says. “My rule now is that I need to be able to explain what the Looking Glass is to a security agent in the TSA line when he opens up my bag and sees this glass block inside. Saying, ‘That’s a light-field volumetric display combo’ doesn’t work. It’s a holographic display to 99 percent of the world. Everyone gets it immediately, other than the old-timer holographers who hate me for using that term.”
In some respects, Frayne himself is an old-timer holographer. For Christmas one year, his parents gave him the Holography Handbook, a classic “do-it-first, ask questions later” guide to creating conventional holograms.
“Growing up in Tampa, Florida, my dad and I built a little holographic studio in my room. I think it was the only one on the block,” Frayne quips, describing the six-by-six-foot wooden box that sat at the foot of his bed, housing a laser, mirrors, and 2,000 pounds of sand. “My laser was so low-power, I had to do exposures that were an hour long — sitting quietly in the dark, exposing these glass slides. At the end of it, I had a holographic capture. My first one was a little pewter Mickey Mouse. It was great, but it didn’t move and it wasn’t alive.”
Frayne went on to study physics at MIT and signed up for an elective course on holography with Stephen Benton, one of the pioneers of the field. While meeting others who shared his passion for holograms was exciting, Frayne was disappointed to learn that the current technology lagged behind the things he envisioned. “I thought somewhere in the labs of MIT, there would be this living, moving holographic display that we are promised in all of these movies. But it just wasn’t there. It didn’t exist. Everything was static — basically laser photographs. I realized, unfortunately, that no one had achieved the dream of the hologram. … I just dropped it and forgot about it for almost 10 years.”
For Frayne, forgetting about holograms meant pursuing his other passion: sustainability and cleantech. He started an invention lab devoted to technology that could reduce waste and generate energy more efficiently. Among other things, he invented self-inflating bubble wrap (“Surprisingly useful!”), a machine for producing solar panels, and experimental wind energy systems, collaborating with Alex Hornstein, his eventual cofounder at Looking Glass Factory, on a number of these projects.
But while his attention was focused elsewhere, the world was catching up with Frayne’s dream of making 3D images that blurred the line between the virtual and the real. Through his friend Zach Smith, one of the founders of MakerBot, he became aware of the growing community of people who were designing 3D models on their computers and printing them out on newly accessible desktop machines.
Frayne also took note as Oculus launched its Rift virtual reality headset on Kickstarter in 2012, gaining the support of nearly 10,000 backers who shared the dream of an immersive virtual world. Facebook acquired Oculus two years later, signaling that dynamic 3D images might be ready for a more mainstream audience (beyond teenagers with an inclination for bedroom physics experiments). “Oh, people are making 3D stuff for Oculus now, that’s cool,” he remembers thinking. “Maybe it’s time for the hologram.”
No dystopian future allowed
If there’s one takeaway from Back to the Future II (beyond the fact that holographic sharks are cool), it’s that seemingly minor decisions can trigger chain reactions that drastically alter the future. This lesson is not lost on Frayne and the team at Looking Glass Factory. “No dystopian future allowed” is scrawled across the door to their office, coincidentally (or perhaps fatefully) located in a former glass factory at the northern tip of Brooklyn. According to Frayne, we’re at a future-defining crossroads right now. He fears that the current path of VR and AR technology could lead to a future that’s largely mediated by headsets. “I don’t want that,” he says. “I don’t want my kids to be interacting with each other and with things that they’re creating in a headset-only future. That is the final push that led us to start [Looking Glass Factory].”
To some, Frayne and Hornstein’s decision to pivot from making technology devoted to sustainability to holographic displays might seem frivolous. But in Frayne’s view, it’s an effort to conserve a different sort of natural resource: the human consciousness.
“This won’t be viewed as socially significant now, but 10 years from now, I think we’ll look back and see that there’s this moment where there was a possible future in which everyone was geared up for 16 hours a day and one or two companies owned the access to the high-speed ports of your brain, which are your eyes. Hopefully, if things go well, that’ll be viewed as a possible but not implemented future because there’ll be things like the Looking Glass.”
The bubble of belief
From the start, Frayne and Hornstein knew they’d have to pursue their vision in stages, breaking up the technical and conceptual challenges ahead into small parts. Instead of keeping their R&D secret, they decided to turn their prototypes into products that would introduce components of their big idea gradually, building a community of believers along the way.
The first of these experiments was with volumetric prints — translucent cubes containing static photorealistic 3D images composed of thin layers of ink on glass slides. They brought the idea to Kickstarter in May 2014, offering little pieces of 3D art to curiosity collectors. But the prints also served as handy visual aids when Frayne and his colleagues needed to explain the dynamic holographic displays that they envisioned. “I would take them to bars and schools and my friends’ places,” he says. “I would say, ‘One day, this ink is going to be replaced with millions of points of light and this frog is going to move.’ That was really neat, to see a lot of completely non-technical folks be able to look at the volumetric prints and imagine an entirely different class of technology in a split second.”
The L3D Cube — an 8 x 8 x 8 array of rainbow LED lights that can be programmed to render basic 3D graphics — was the next proof of concept they brought to Kickstarter. It lacked the photorealistic resolution of a hologram (512 points of light instead of millions), but it allowed them to see what people would create with an interactive volumetric display. It was a hit with the Burning Man crowd (“LEDs are essentially currency at Burning Man,” Frayne jokes), and Cubetube, the website they built to let people share their L3D Cube creations, began to fill up with games like 3D Tetris, creative sound visualizers, and other projects.
The success of the L3D Cube allowed Frayne and Hornstein’s growing team to keep experimenting, creating hundreds of prototypes over the last four years with varying degrees of success. Frayne recalls an early attempt that was “the size of a refrigerator and would generate a little sugar cube-sized volumetric scene of my daughter Jane and my son Ben running around. I thought this thing was amazing. No one else was entertained. I actually remember these two guys at Disney literally laughing me out of the room.”
These days, their demos at high-profile entertainment companies go quite differently. “We just showed this at Pixar a few weeks ago and everyone was really excited about making new content in the Looking Glass. That was a special moment for us. They’re the top 3D creators in the world, and for them to see how their work could live in a new way in this medium was really special.”
When Frayne and Hornstein started working on holographic displays in 2014, they figured it would take 10 years to achieve what they had in mind. The launch of their Kickstarter campaign for the Looking Glass means they’re ahead of schedule. But this is still just the beginning. Thinking about a future where these displays are commonplace, Frayne imagines a holographic version of teleconferencing, animated avatars that could give a face to AI voice agents like Amazon’s Alexa, and so much more.
As with VR, the experiences people build for the Looking Glass will ultimately be what tests its potential. That’s why Frayne and his team are focused on getting it into the hands of as many developers and content creators as possible. “Confidence is a challenging thing to maintain in any chase for an invention where the endpoint is unknown. You have to have people that create this bubble of belief around this whole team that can be tenuously maintained despite all of the criticism that happens in the chase for something like the hologram.”
As they watch an increasing number of backers step up to support the project, Frayne and his team have their eye on expanding that bubble of belief. “For now, it encompasses 20 people and a bunch of friends who come by our labs. Hopefully it encompasses the whole world pretty soon.”
— Nick Yulman
You can support Shawn Frayne and Looking Glass Factory’s chase for the hologram until August 23. To stay in the loop on more future-defining projects, subscribe to Kickstarter’s Invent newsletter.
“The thing that I’ve always dreamed about in the chase for the hologram is something like holo-Skype: being to able to have a Looking Glass in our lab in Brooklyn and another one in our lab in Hong Kong, and then seeing the other team in the Looking Glass as if they’re really there. To me, that’s the killer app.”