The idea of having holograms has captured the attention of generations of people through sci-fi films, and this week on Moonshot we are diving into the people who are right now working to make hologram displays a reality.
Our guests in this episode:
- Scott Millar - BOP Industries.
- Daniel Smalley - Brigham Young University
Research for this episode by Patrick Laverick.
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.
Star Wars - Obi-Wan: “Now the force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field that’s created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”
KRIS: Now it’s probably not surprising to any of you that I’m a big fan of Star Wars…I love imagining this world where people can travel at lightspeed, have their own robots. move objects with their mind, and of course communicate using holograms.
Star Wars - Princess Leia: “General Kenobe. Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.
KRIS: And the most famous of these hologram scenes was probably the Princess Leia projection where she was asking Obi-wan for help.
Star Wars - Princess Leia: “I’ve placed information vital to the survival of the rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me Obi-wan Kenobe you’re my only hope.”
KRIS: Now the idea of having holograms has captured the attention of generations of people… and this week on Moonshot we’re diving into the people who are right now working to make the Princess Leia projection a reality. But first, a word from our sponsors.
Scott Millar: Every time we do these at an event, like every time, you always see people, when the holograms turn on you hear them gasp, then you hear them look at their friend and go ‘oh, my god can you see that too?’ and then you see them grab their phone and take it out and take photos and video.
Scott Millar: Hi everyone my name’s Scott Millar, I’m the CEO and Founder of a Brisbane-based startup called BOP Industries. At BOP Industries we’re on a mission to inspire the next generation of digital creators, and we do that through creating holograms like you see in Star Wars and Ironman, for advertising events and marketing, and also running workshops. Teaching students about new and emerging technologies with a focus on creativity.
Scott Millar: So our holograms range from the size of a phone and tablet right up to a life-size two metre tall unit. So essentially the way they work is they use a scientific principle called Pepper’s Ghost which is essentially light reflections and refractions.
KRIS: Now this idea of Pepper’s Ghost has been around since the mid 18-hundreds. John H Pepper - a lecturer in London - took some existing ideas around projections and merged them with a pane of glass to create an illusion that tricked people into believing that an object was somewhere else in the room. The idea for these projections actually started back in the 1500s - but it was Pepper who refined it and popularised it, and it became a useful trick for haunted houses and magicians.
Scott Millar: So what you see is an inverted pyramid made of an acrylic glass composite. So it kind of looks like a tinted plastic. So it’s dark enough that you can, that it can capture the light but still light enough that you can see through it. An inverted pyramid sitting on top of a screen with light reflecting on all four faces. So you get a 360 degree view. And that goes from the size of a phone and tablet right up to our life-size two metre tall units that use projectors and some really cool glass and stuff like that.
KRIS: Now one of the most popular recent examples of this peppers ghost concept was in 2012 at Coachella - where Snoop Dog and Dr Dre performed on stage with Tupac… who died in 1996 before Coachella even existed.
Newsreader: “The audience at an American music festival were left gasping at the weekend at the sight of the rap artist Tupac
KRIS: And there have since been many other instances where celebrities were either resurrected or seen performing with people not in the room using these Pepper’s Ghost projections.
KRIS: And the way this works is that - a projection is made onto the floor of the stage which is then reflected onto a glass pane - creating an illusion for the audience. And it’s this general idea that Scott is using to create his holograms.
Scott Millar: We did this one event on the Gold Coast earlier this year where we ahd 30 centrepieces set out, one in the middle of every table with a hologram floating inside. And as guests arrived there was a fire crackling in the middle of the table, and then as soon as they sat down all the lights went out and then simultaneously, all at the same time, [at] every single table the emcee appeared inside the hologram of the centerpiece. And he said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, are you ready for this event.” And he did some really cool stuff where he would snap his fingers and have fire shoot out of his hands, he’d wave his arm and have rocket ships launch out of his arm. And then that faded out and then he appeared on the stage in real life. And he did some co-presenting with the actual hologram where he’d, we’d prercorded it and timed it so the real emcee would ask the hologram a question. The hologram would wait and respond with some really cool animations and then turn back to the live emcee and back and forth.
Scott Millar: We always work with really bright colours and really light colours. We find if you’re dressed in a fully black suit you’ll totally disappear we won’t be able to see you in the hologram because it blends into the black pyramid we use. Slow movements, we find it’s really mesmerising. So if you’ve got something moving slowly and really smoothly people are really transfixed on it.
KRIS: Now if Scott’s voice sounds young it’s because he’s just 18-years-old and actually started his business journey when he was 14… creating keyrings using his schools laser cutter. He then started selling the keyrings at market stalls and often making $400 on a weekend. and eventually he moved the business online. And then he was getting so many orders that the school was getting a bit frustrated at him using their laser cutter so he went online and ordered his own.
Scott Millar: I bought this laser cutter. It arrived from China in this massive crate. We set it all up, plugged it in, and it was ready to go, and we pressed print and it just totally fizzled out and died. And it was genuinely devastating. I’d spent $3500 on this thing and as a 15-year-old I then set about making my mission fixing this laser cutter. So I jumped on Google, I jumped on YouTube, and I pretty much within a couple of months over my summer holidays had to gut a laser cutter, completely pull it apart, and then rebuild it.
KRIS: Now scott had the capacity to produce thousands of orders with a bit of help from his family and his friends. But he knew at 15 that he didn’t see his career being in the keychain business. But he knew that he wanted to do something with technology. Although he didn’t have a great experience at learning technology from school because the teaching was pretty outdated - and he wasn’t that interested in coding… but he knew that he was really creative so wanted to find a way to use those skills.
Scott Millar: I remember I jumped on YouTube one night and I googled technology tutorials, and I found this one tutorial teaching me how to make holograms out of cut out CD cases. And as a kid I always loved watching Star Wars and Ironman and I thought right, let's give it a crack, I burnt through about 20 of mums best CD cases but I finally created this first hologram. It was powered just by light reflections and refractions but it looked just like Princess Leia out of the movies. So the next morning I took it into my school’s design teachers and I said, ‘Right, I’ve created this out of some cutout CD cases, can you help me make a real product out of it that I can start selling on some of these online stores.
KRIS: So with a bit of help Scott came up with a design that worked really well and he started selling these hologram units online.
Scott Millar: And I had no idea what people were going to use it for. I had no idea how it was going to work. But I just knew that it was some really cool technology and that it could have some real world applications. We really quickly started getting people sending us in photos and videos from all around the world of what they were using these holograms for. And the main ones we found we had… a lot of kids in the UK were using them as holographic pets so they could have like a little puppy or a kitten running around inside their holograms as they fell asleep. We had a lot of teachers in Singapore using it to deliver content. So they’d dress up as Winston Churchill or Cleopatra and deliver a famous speech for their students.
Scott Millar: But here in Australia we had a lot of companies reaching out that were event and marketing companies, saying ‘hey, we love these and we want to use them for our event.’
KRIS: But amongst all of these orders there was one that really stood out.
Scott Millar: It said ‘Hey, I work with a big marketing company here in Brisbane, we’e got an event coming up in two weeks time, and we’d like to place an order for 200,000 holograms.’ And, I remember I got that, I was 16 at the time and it was an order that was going to be worth about half a million dollars. And I was like, ‘OK, this has got to be some kind of joke’.
KRIS: Were you thinking, oh that must be a typo or something?
Scott Millar: Oh, I was… part of me was like, ‘oh, this has got to be a typo,’ and the other part was like ‘I’m going to be set for life, I can buy a house, I can move out. But I remember I took this meeting, I went in to their offices in Brisbane city and I was getting quizzed by their entire team and their clients about what my supply chain is, my risk mitigation, whether my factories were in Shenzhen or Bangladesh. And it was absolutely crazy. As a 16-year-old seeing these real business people that wanted to buy my product and they had real faith in what I was selling.
KRIS: Now Scott wasn’t able to fulfill those 200,000 orders because he was making these holographic displays out of his Dad’s backyard. But that didn’t matter because the company still wanted to work with him to create displays for the events and marketing space. And these are the types of displays that you may have seen at a big tradeshow that look a bit like a pyramid and you can see some sort of interesting imagery from whatever direction you look. And they do look very lifelike and very futuristic.
Scott Millar: The biggest hologram we’ve created is a two metre tall hologram. So it’s an actual lifesize unit. So we created our first hologram for that at the Queensland museum for National Science Week last year. Where we had a life-size hologram of the 2017 Australian of the Year Professor Alan Mackay-Sim. We recorded him for 30 minutes doing some different intros and some different bits in front of a camera. And he appeared at the National Science Week for over 70 hours. Where he’s be welcome people to the museum, talking about why he loves science, doing some really cool tricks with the holograms. And people were taking selfies with him, they were taking photos of him, and we only recorded him for half an hour which was really cool.
Scott Millar: So what we’re working on at the moment is a two-metre tall holographic chandelier. So a hologram you can hang from the ceiling, spin it around like a disco ball, and have, whether it’s a product spinning around changing colour, changing shape and changing design, a person doing a presentation or a welcome, or just some custom branded graphics, that’s what we’re working on next.
KRIS: And it’s worth pointing out that BOP is not the only company that’s building these displays… I actually saw a ton of different companies at Vivatech last year and they all had their own take on how you would actually build a holographic display. But something that does set Scott’s company apart is his focus on education and on inspiring people to actually go about pursuing a career in tech.
Scott Millar: I remember we ran our first workshop at the World Science Festival back in 2017. It was myself and eight mates. We took two days off school and worked two days on the weekend for a four-day festival. And we just started running some really simple film your own hologram workshops where people could come in, they could learn about the science of holograms, take their own photo and video and turn that into a hologram as well in about 30-seconds. And it was absolutely crazy, we had four of us on at a time, we had about four-thousand people come through in about four days.
KRIS: Scott’s now run these sessions for more than 12,000 students and it’s become a big part of his business. But he’s still thinking about the future of the technology and is excited by the possibilities for where the tech is heading.
Scott Millar: We as humans are very creative people and we love to use technology to view things in a different way. And I think a bit more of that magic is going to come back to technology. At the moment it’s very, I don’t know, I think it’s lost a little bit of that magic. And I’m really excited to see that come back into our tech as our technology starts to develop further.
KRIS: Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably wondering when we’re going to get to that Princess Leia style concept of what you always believed was a hologram, and right after this break we’re going to meet one of the researchers who is working to bring that idea into reality.
KRIS: Welcome back to Moonshot - I’m Kristofor Lawson. And before we go further down this hologram rabbit hole - it’s important to spell out that what you actually see in Star Wars is technically not a hologram. It’s actually what’s called a volumetric display. Holograms actually require a projection onto a 2D surface. But when are we going to get that Princess Leia style concept that really got us inspired, or be able to play holochess as you see in SOLO….
Voice: “Somehow I never get bored with winning.”
KRIS: Well it turns out that it may not be that far away.
Daniel Smalley: A holographic image is one that’s created through diffraction. When light travels through a pattern of lines and bends to form intersecting rays in space, or to form a wavefront that’s similar to the wavefront that would come off a real object. That’s holography, and a holographic images always arise from diffraction.
KRIS: This Daniel Smalley - he’s an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Brigham Young University, and an expert on the concept of volumetric displays.
Daniel Smalley: Volumetric displays don’t require diffraction necessarily to create 3D images. Instead, the difference between a holographic image and a volumetric image is that a volumetric image employs more than just photons it employs atoms as well. So a volumetric image will have a little piece of physical material flying around in space or moving around on a paddle that is either illuminated or emitting light. And it is the fact that there’s atoms involved that gives it an extra bit of physicality.
KRIS: Now volumetric displays are much more closely aligned to what you might see in Star Wars or in Iron Man, and unlike a holographic image which can only be seen in one direction - a volumetric display exists in 3d space.
Daniel Smalley: With a volumetric display you don’t have to be looking in to a screen or an aperture, you can see the imagery like you see the water coming from a water fountain. You don’t have to look down into the water fountain to see the water you can be sitting on a bench to the side and see it coming up. So, and this is the popular conception. When people say hologram, that’s what they really mean is a 3D image, typically this is what they mean. A 3D image that pops out from some surface and can be seen in every direction and that’s really an attribute of a volumetric display.
KRIS: Although volumetric displays like what you see in science fiction may seem a long way off - Daniel has actually been hard at work trying to make it happen. And he’s already made some progress. Daniel and his team have created a real-life volumetric display, and he’s done this by trapping particles in the air and then lighting them up so they glow. Then by changing the pressure around the particles he can move them and if he moves them quick enough you actually see an image in the air.
Daniel Smalley: And to see that in real life, that was, that was one of those moments where you lose bladder control and you get excited about the potential because the key problem was we knew we could trap particles but the question was could we move them around fast enough to actually create images. And that was a moment where we determined that that was in fact possible, and… at least at a very small scale. So it made it possible then for us to create all of these images from science fiction in miniature and demonstrate this kind of tiny proof of concept. Those sci-fi images were now possible with this technique.
KRIS: Currently Daniel says they can create volumetric displays that are around one cubic centimeter in size and they also only use a couple of particles. But if they can increase the speed that the particles move, and also move many more particles, they’ll then be able to address a much bigger size of image.
Daniel Smalley: It’s like 3D printing and so you have to move this particle to every point in the object 10 times a second or 15 times a second. And it’s just very difficult to do that with moving mirrors, there’s some mechanical limits to how fast they can move and how fast the particle might be able to move. And so the strategy going forward is instead of moving one particle throughout a complicated path, we’d like to hold and trap many particles. Tens, or hundreds, or maybe even thousand of particles simultaneously and move them through some simple path. Like a simple sweep in a single direction. And in that way we can, as long as we’re able to illuminate them all independently, we could imaging making a much bigger, maybe eight inch, or 10 inch or bigger images, at video rates.
KRIS: What’s the process of getting from where you are to that point where you can do the Princess Leia projection?
Daniel Smalley: Yeah, that’s a good question. So we figure we need about a… something on the order of what is it a hundred centimeters cubed. I may be wrong on this but we figure an eight inch sweep which could be done more or less with the current hardware, but we estimate we’d probably need maybe a hundred particles trapped and individually illuminated to make kind of what would be a lifesize Princess Leia. And at the moment what we’re doing is just a small handful of particles at a time. So we’re about one order of magnitude off what we need for trapping and then of course the complication of illuminating all those particles independently.
Daniel Smalley: But we have reason to hope that this is feasible. It’s certainly less of an engineering… it’s less of a challenge on paper then what we have already accomplished. So we feel pretty confident that if we were as lucky for the next four years as the first four years, then we ought to be able to have a Princess Leia display of some quality.
KRIS: Do you think we’ll get to the point of being able to do this Princess Leia type projection where it comes from like a point on like a robot or something, or a point on a desk and it gives us this same kind of Star Wars like experience?
Daniel Smalley: I think so. I would give us a 60-70 percent chance at this point. Where I think maybe six months ago I would have said maybe 50 percent. So I think that, I think we’re definitely moving in that direction. There’s fewer feasibility issues now, there’s fewer unsolved questions. I think it’s going to happen.
KRIS: What inspires you most to keep working on this technology?
Daniel Smalley: Well it’s being able to see science fiction made real, I think is a strong, visceral, motivation for a lot of people in my field. I think that a lot of us are trying to be true to our 14-year-old selves and do cool things in science. And I think that it’s very intrinsically motivating. I’m personally very interested and I’m a big fan of Star Trek and Star Wars and anytime I think I might be able to get close to a holodeck like technology, or a Princess Leia projection like technology, it helps me feel like I’m doing my part to bring the future a little closer. At least what I consider to be the manifest destiny of humanity a little closer.