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Three Lytro Veterans Want to Build the Holographic Sci-Fi TV Set of the Future

3D TV was a bust, but San Jose-based Light Field Labs wants consumers to give the third dimension another shot. The startup, which was founded by three former Lytro engineers, is developing light field-based holographic displays, with the goal to build a TV set capable of projecting 3D holograms into your living room.

But that’s not all: Eventually, consumers will be able to not only see movies 3D holograms, but actually reach out and touch those 3D objects as well. “We have the ability to take these rays of light and feel them,” said Light Field Labs co-founder and CEO Jon Karafin during a recent interview with Variety.

Karafin readily admitted that this sounds like pure science fiction. Then again, the team behind Light Field Labs has some experience in turning Sci-Fi-futuristic tech into real products. Karafin and his two co-founders, CTO Brendan Bevensee and VP of Engineering Ed Ibe all previously worked at Lytro, the camera maker that initially developed and sold a photo camera that allowed consumers to select the focal point of their images after the fact, and has since changed focus to build high-end video cameras for movie and virtual reality productions.

Lytro uses light field technology for its cameras, capturing video in not just two dimensions, but all rays of light as they bounce around within a certain area. Light Field Lab, which is having its public coming-out at NAB in Las Vegas next week, now wants to use the same technology to build what Karafin called “full paralax holographic displays.” Displays that promise zero latency and extremely high-resolution holograms without the need for any special glasses.

The company is looking to eventually bring this kind of display technology to all kinds of areas, ranging from theme parks to movie theaters, and at some point maybe even mobile phones. But an obvious first application will be TV sets for home use, ranging from 65 to 100 inches. These TV sets will be able to show both holographic content and regular 2D content, as well as up-sample traditional videos to holograms.

The latter will be necessary because just as with 3D TV, holographic displays will require dedicated content to shine. Karafin said that video games may be first to make the jump onto this new generation of displays, followed by other computer-generated fare. “Live action is the most complicated,” he admitted, as it will require capture with dedicated light field cameras.

Light field video will also be fairly data-intensive, and use much more bandwidth than a traditional 2D video. “The goal is that it will be streamable,” said Karafin, while admitting that it may take ultra-fast broadband connections with 300 MBPS and more of bandwidth, something that may not be commonplace for a few more years.

Speaking of which: It may take a few more years before holograms make it into everyone’s living room. “We have the prototype in fabrication as we speak,” said Karafin. He expects to be able to ship a limited number of displays to developers in 2018, and have a large-scale commercial production set up in 2019 or 2020, either by licensing the company’s technology to partners or by building out its own production facilities.

And no, these first-generation displays won’t let consumers touch holograms. That may take a few additional years, as it will require the company to venture in a related field of cutting-edge technology: Volumetric haptics, which use acoustic waves to simulate the sensation of touch. Said Karafin: “You will be able to feel the object itself.”

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