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A First Look at Light Field Lab’s Futuristic Holographic Display

Remember the Tupac hologram? Light Field Lab co-founder and CEO Jon Karafin sure does.

The posthumous concert appearance of the slain rapper at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival has been haunting Karafin every day — because he has to keep explaining to people that it wasn’t, in fact, a real hologram. “That’s just projected glass,” he quipped during a recent Variety interview.

Karafin’s company has been developing a true holographic display, with the goal to one day replace your regular TV with one that can bring 3D holograms into your living room. But while the company’s staff is busy working on making this vision a reality, Karafin is also touring the conference circuit, playing the myth buster, and telling everyone who wants to know why Tupac and a bunch of other projection technologies weren’t actually real holograms.

With more than a decade of experience in all things 3D, Karafin likes to dive deep into the details, but here’s the gist of it: A real hologram projects an accurate visual representation of an object in a 3D space. Tupac, LEDs mounted to spinning fan blades, glasses-free 3D, and even AR or VR headsets can all be impressive, but fall short of that definition.

Light Field Lab has been working for close to two years on making true holographic displays a reality. Karafin and his colleagues are reluctant to talk about some of the secret sauce behind their technology, but it essentially boils down to the way the human eye works. We see objects in our environment thanks to all the rays of light that are bouncing all over the place within our field of view — something that is also known as a light field.

Light Field Lab reproduces these light fields within a certain viewing area thanks in part to a combination of many layers of waveguide glass. “We are doing things that are real hard tech,” Karafin said.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Light Field Lab

A rendering of Light Field Lab’s current prototype device.

A first result of this work is a prototype display the company is currently showing to select visitors in its San Jose, Calif., office space. Measuring 4 by 6 inches, the display is capable of projecting holograms with a depth of up to 2 inches, a viewing cone of 30 degrees, and over 150 million full-color rays, or approximately 16k x 10k holographic sub-pixels. “It’s not your everyday display,” said Karafin.

During a recent demo for Variety, these holograms included a pair of butterflies flying through thin air, a fish turning around its own axis, a seahorse, and a kind of forest landscape diorama, which seemingly continued inwards past the screen of the display.

Light Field Lab staff showed off the display in a dark room to project the images freestanding into thin air, where they could be manipulated in a number of ways that simply wouldn’t be possible with a Tupac-like projection. This included taking a glass lens to move through and “capture” the 3D hologram, as well as taking picture frame and moving it beyond the borders of the hologram. Even with its small size and the controlled environment, the demo was pretty mind-blowing.

Later, the company reset the demo and showed off the display running under regular interior light conditions. With a glass front to protect the display itself from curious fingers, this setup wasn’t quite as impressive. However, it still looked more like a diorama with real depth than a traditional 2D or even glasses-free 3D display.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Light Field Lab

To turn its prototype into a product, Light Field Lab plans to fuse it to 18-inch display blocks.

Light Field Lab now wants to fuse these 4×6 display blocks into 18-inch displays, which will be able to display holograms with a depth of up to 2 feet. These 18-inch displays can then be combined to entire holographic videos walls, capable of projecting holograms tens of feet out. The company wants to start manufacturing next year, and then start selling to first customers in 2020.

Among the first customers Light Field Lab aims to target are casinos and location-based entertainment vendors. It then plans to gradually expand its customer base to theaters as well as stores looking to lure in customers passing by, and ultimately reach sports venues and other commercial clients as well. “Our target is to be competitive with the premium LED video wall market once we’re in volume production,” said Karafin.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Light Field Lab

A rendering of Light Field Lab’s planned holographic video walls.

Average consumers will likely have to wait a bit longer for holographic TVs to reach their living rooms. “The consumer market is a hugely challenged market,” said Karafin. An issue isn’t just the price point, which he expects to come down as the company starts to scale up production. It’s also content.

The company’s executive vice president, studio operations Jeff Barnes said it planned to have 5000 hours of high-quality content available to consumers before it tries to sell them any displays. Light Field Lab wants to help Hollywood and others to gear up for that future by letting them use existing tools like Maya to produce holographic content. Finding the right stories to tell on such displays will nonetheless come with its own set of challenges, he admitted. “It’s a totally different way of thinking,” Barnes said.

Barnes knows full well that content produced for such a medium can’t just consist of gimmicks. Like Karafin, he’s a veteran of Digital Domain, a company that was among the first to produce 3D content for Hollywood. In those early days, a lot of 3D produced for theaters included cheap effects added solely for their shock value. “We used to call that arrows and yo-yos,” Barnes recalled.

To truly make use of holographic displays, Hollywood would have to think further, and reimagine some of its content offerings. “It’s a lot more of an immersive experience,” Barnes said, likening it to experiencing stage theater or live shows, rather than just a 3D version of traditional content.

These challenges don’t deter some in Hollywood from embracing Light Field Labs early on. The company struck a partnership with Otoy as well as Endeavor and Roddenberry Entertainment last month to produce content for the company’s holographic display. “We’re excited to bring true holographic content to Light Field Lab’s displays, which will give consumers unbelievable experiences, without the burden of 3D glasses or VR headsets,” said Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel at the time.

Holographic content for displays like the ones that Light Field Labs wants to build also comes with another challenge: True light field video consumes orders of magnitude more data than your typical 4K video stream. Cutting-edge light-field cameras are capable of capturing several terabytes of raw video data for each minute of recorded footage.

Light Field Lab wants to cut down on this with its own vector-based video format that will make it possible to stream holographic content with 300Mbps over next-generation broadband connections. “We are building an entire platform,” said Karafin.

But even with these challenges, the Light Field Lab team remains confident that it can ultimately deliver true holographic content to people’s living rooms. Light Field Lab executive vice president of operations John Dohm even argued that holograms may be the next big thing the industry has been waiting for. TV makers may soon have reached a point where simply making bigger screens with more pixels won’t make their product any more compelling, he said. “That’s not really gonna get you anywhere.”

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