Popular Mechanics recently picked apart the "futuristic" society depicted in Pulitzer-winner Adam Johnson's his new sci-fi short story, Nirvana. Most of Johnson's supposedly sci-fi predictions—driverless cars, spy drones—are already more science than fiction. Except for one, it claimed: "The only piece of tech that actually seems beyond our capabilities is a life-size, interactive talking hologram."
Not so fast. The life-size talking hologram promised in the fantasy films of yore is, too, creeping toward reality. The holographic technology startup Provision 3D Media has successfully produced 3D floating virtual images up to 52 inches large, and now it's setting out to develop a working life-sized hologram.
The startup is trying to raise $950,000 on Kickstarter to develop and test the prototype. "From the moment Princess Leia materialized in 1977, Holograms would forever be tied to the vision of our future," the Kickstarter page says. "Science Fiction has shown us what’s next. Now it’s time to make it happen."
The technology to make it happen already exists. Provision has been making 3D holographic displays for over 10 years, mostly for retail use. They've also patented a proprietary light source that has more power than a laser technology, which allows them to beam a six-foot-tall image several feet in front of the screen.
Virtual reality and real life have been blending for a while, but the hologram dream only hit the mainstream in the last year or two. You probably remember the hologram-like images of Beyonce at the Super Bowl, Tupac at Coachella, Wolf Blitzer on Election Night. These, however, were part illusion, rather than actual hologram technology—i.e., 3D, projected, free-floating virtual images you can see with the naked eye.
Forget Skype: Imagine if you could chat with your friend's digital Doppelganger standing in your home. Or talk to hologram sales clerks about a product. Or play a video game where life-size characters fill the living room, not just the screen.
The technology that could eventually make it possible to talk to and interact with holograms is also starting to develop. We could theoretically combine life-size holograms with artificial intelligence technology—apps like Cleverbot that talk back to you when you talk to it, that can mimic a human conversation with eerie accuracy. What if someday, we could talk to a life-sized floating image of a human? With enough data, we could conceivably even program ourselves virtual friends to hang out with.
Add in something like Microsoft's Xbox Illumiroom project, a next-generation console concept that combines the Kinect with a video projector to project a digital backdrop on your living room, and you could turn your home into an interactive virtual world. Gamers may never see the light of day again.
Touchable holography is a thing, too, though the tech is still in the early stages of development. In 2009, Provision teamed up with University of Tokyo researchers to develop a tangible hologram projector. It combines the company's Holo display, two Wii remotes that track where the user's hand is in front of the screen, and an ultrasound tactile display that shoots ultrasonic waves at the hand to create the sensation of pressure. It can produce 1.6 grams of force, making the virtual objects seem to have physical mass.
Though Popular Mechanics is right to point out that interactive holograms aren't a reality just yet, the technology clearly isn't beyond our capabilities. Science fiction authors are going to have to start dreaming a bit bigger.