Australian company Euclideon has built a working prototype of what it calls the world's first true multi-user hologram table. Up to four people can walk around a holographic image and interact with it wearing only a small set of glasses – a far cry from bulky AR headgear. It's set to go on sale in 2018.
The idea of the hologram table has been a staple of sci-fi for decades. Indeed, hologram tables themselves have popped up here and there, but never really caught on. That's mainly because in the past, they just haven't worked like people hoped.
The problem is this: a hologram is a computer-generated stereo image, much like the kind of image you see when you watch a 3-D movie. But if you've got a group of people standing around a table, looking at the same image, they'll all see the same perspective on it, and the image won't change as they move around. It breaks the illusion.
But it seems we're about to see a new perspective on holograms – eight perspectives, really – from an Australian company that believes it's cracked the code and designed the world's first true multi-user hologram table that's ready for prime time.
Euclideon, based just outside Brisbane, Australia, is better known for its Unlimited Detail (UD) 3D graphics processing engine, which caused quite a kerfuffle in the gaming community when it was first showcased in 2011. The UD engine could render absolutely gigantic virtual spaces in minute detail, allowing a viewer to move through a colossal 3D environment using low-end computers and no special graphics cards. It wasn't so hot when it came to physics, procedural lighting or objects that changed when they moved, so UD never took off as a large scale gaming engine.
It remains, however, an outstanding engine for geospatial imaging, presenting laser-scanned or hand-designed 3D maps of entire cities that can be zoomed in on to the smallest details and manipulated.
And now, the UD engine underpins Euclideon's remarkable multi-user hologram tables, which can give up to four users at a time the experience of looking at a hologram that they can walk around and interact with, without the need for bulky augmented reality (AR) headgear.
This is an important point. Euclideon's table only requires users to use a small pair of motion-trackable sunglasses, very similar to a pair of 3D glasses, making them much more relevant in a social meeting or gaming situation than the large helmets and screens you currently need for AR. Here's the working prototype:
When you're wearing these glasses, the table is able to track the position of each of your eyes, and build a custom image for each eye. Using frequency separation crystal films in both the table surface and the glasses, up to eight separate images can be sorted out from what looks to the naked eye like a jumble of coloured light, allowing up to four people to experience a binocular stereo image that looks remarkably like the way holograms are depicted in Star Wars and a thousand other movies.
Obviously, taking one gigantic 3D model and generating eight different, moving perspectives on it in real-time should put a huge strain on the graphics engine – and that's where Euclideon's UD engine really shines. When it comes to gigantic point-scanned city maps or CAD renders, this software is extraordinarily fast, yet gentle on processing demands. That makes these hologram tables exceptionally effective as boardroom presentation tools.
But there are also games coming – interactive, holographic 3D games that Euclideon founder and CEO Bruce Dell believes could help revive the video game arcade.
Euclideon currently has one small 1.5 x 1.5-m prototype table up and running, and that prototype's proven compelling to Australian investor types who have seen it in the flesh. The company has raised enough capital to go into production, with a target of shipping product by February 2018.
The tables shouldn't be that expensive, either. Dell tells us he should be able to sell a 1.5 x 1.5-meter (4.9 x 4.9-ft) table for around AU$60,000 (US$47,000). Larger versions are also in the pipeline, including potentially something big enough for four people to stand on. That should be pretty spectacular.
It's difficult to show video of a hologram in action, but you can see roughly what they'll look like in the video below, which Euclideon made by motion-tracking a moving video camera, then generating a corresponding hologram image and editing them together. It's worth noting that any part of the image that appears to project beyond the edges of the table won't be doing that in real life; the image will fade out as it reaches the edges of the display. You won't see any hologram that doesn't have the table directly behind it, which makes this video (and the mock-up images used throughout this article) a little misleading – but they provide a general idea of what it looks like.
We spoke to Euclideon CEO Bruce Dell, who talked us through how the hologram table works, the Unlimited Detail engine, the commercial future of the product, and the games side of things. What follows is an edited transcript.
Loz: I think that hologram table looks really cool, I love it. But I still haven't the foggiest idea how it works. Can you explain it in a way that an idiot might understand?
Dell: Sure. I'll give a bit of background. People are wondering what can and can't be done in this area. The first thing is, if you want a computer-tracked hologram, you need to wear some sort of glasses.
That means the computer can make them interactive. You can play games, or destroy things, move around in environments, zoom in. If you're going to have a computer-generated hologram, then you have to wear some sort of glasses.
The biggest problem with computer-tracked holograms – and people have been making them all around the world in universities and experiments and things like that – is they only work for one person. If you try having two people, the computer doesn't know whether to build the image from your perspective or my perspective.
Up until now, the reason why we haven't seen them in much practical use is that a single person hologram table … doesn't really have that much of an advantage. I mean, you look at it and go "wow!" but you can't share it with anyone. It's like the movies, you don't see a whole lot of people at the movies by themselves. We have a lot more fun when it's with other people.
Loz: Hasn't this sort of thing been achieved already with multi-user VR/AR gear?
Kind of. So people were making augmented reality helmets, and putting screens over their eyes, and trying to take these things into boardrooms. And we were hearing back things like "well, we took them into two meetings, but by the third one, people were saying let's just look at it on the screen."
Wearing these big helmet things, for whatever reason, whether it's the big straps, or putting them on … as soon as you start trying to talk to people, it's like they can't wait to pull them off. As soon as they're looking up at you and not the augmented reality hologram, they start pulling them off their heads to talk to you. Of course, I'm biased, because we make something else. Haha!
Loz: OK, so how is a hologram table different? Where does the image come from? What is it?
Good question! The technical term is they are theoretical atoms that the computer is generating according to the view of your left and right eye, and that gives the illusion that they're floating in space.
Loz: But the glasses don't have screens?
No. The computer is making light on the table, but with these sunglasses, it can give the impression that light is solid, and floating in the air. When you look at a hologram table, you sort of go "oh! Toys! Ghost toys! Toys made of energy!" And then you put your hand through them and there's nothing there.
Loz: So the table itself is a screen?
So what is the device? The device is projectors that are under a special sort of film between two pieces of glass. The projectors run light through special crystals that do things to the wavelength.
Then it comes up to the special film between pieces of glass. If you wore no glasses, it would look like a jumble of color. When you put the glasses on, suddenly it looks like a hologram.
So if you have no glasses, you see a jumble of color. Once you put the glasses on, suddenly there's objects made of light floating up to 60 cm (24 in) above the table, which is reasonably high.
Loz: So what are the glasses made of?
They're like the same substance that you wear at a 3D movie, but they've then got layers of other special crystal films over the top.
The purpose of them is to take light waves and change their frequencies. So the projector and the table looks like a jumble of colour without the glasses, but when you wear the glasses, the computer works out which light wave is yours, which eye you're looking through.
It works out which light wave you should be seeing. The computer knows where the glasses are. The glasses have some boxes with little microchips and microcomputers that we build on the side of them.
Loz: Something like the tracking jiggers on a VR headset.
Very much like that. The computer needs to know where you are.
Loz: So there are sensors around the room working out where each eyeball is?
No, the sensors are actually in the table. We wanted to have it as one unit.
Loz: So the computer is generating an image for each eye, for each person, and projecting it onto the table, and then the glasses are using frequency separation to filter out everything except what that eye should be seeing?
That's the general gist of it. Frequency separation lets each eye basically see only the image that belongs to it. So we can have multiple people standing around a table, seeing the same thing from different angles. The computer is generating a 3D image for each of them.
Loz: And what does it end up looking like?
Exactly like it does in the movies. The weird thing I can't work out – and all of my people are puzzled as well – is that 40 years ago, when science fiction like Star Wars and groups like that, they guessed what a hologram would look like, there weren't any holograms. None of this technology existed.
Now the fact that they got it exactly right is absolutely bizarre. What you see on this table is pretty much exactly what you see from holograms before they were invented, in sci-fi. There can be all sorts of conspiracy theories around that one! They were showing technology that didn't exist, and when it did get invented, it looked exactly like what they guessed it would look like.
Loz: So an individually generated 3D image for each eye, that must take a ton of processing power?
Yes, we need an awful lot of processing power. But I don't know how much you know about our company. We make the world's most powerful 3D graphics engine. Officially. Hexagon corporation, the world's largest geospatial corporation, we built some of their core technology.
A few years ago, I invented a new 3D algorithm that was able to process unlimited amounts of 3D graphics. What we mean by that is, if you make something out of polygons, let's say a tree, and then you stick another tree in, it's going to use up twice as much processing power.
But I made an algorithm that, instead of working in polygons, it breaks down 3D graphics into little points, XYZ, and it was able to three-dimensionally search for one point for every pixel on the screen.
You ended up with this system where, without using the graphics card at all, it was able to run any 3D models of any size. We took whole cities, that would previously only run in 12 million-dollar Cray supercomputers, and we were able to run them on our laptops. This was pretty big news back in 2010.
The head of Minecraft assured everybody it was impossible, that the examples we were showing would've taken thousands of computers hooked together to run them, and that it couldn't have been real.
And the head of Crytek, he came to the rescue, saying "no, no, it's absolutely real" – so there was a huge fight on the internet going through lots and lots of forums and thousands of comments … Eventually we started to release the technology in products.
The French railway system laser scanned in their whole railway track, and they run it all on our technology. The Hungarian government made the largest laser scan in the world. The Turkish government did the same as the Hungarian government, the Tokyo Traffic Authority…
Hexagon corporation tested it all out, and declared it to be the fastest and best way of running 3D laser scans of point cloud data, and then licensed it from us.
It turns out that things went very well for us, particularly for an Australian company. So we were then working with a lot of these customers, and they were looking for a new and interesting way to display models.
In some cases, it was customers wanting to sell houses or shopping centers off the plan, and the ability to use something other than plastic models. And that's the hologram table. The ability to say here's the house we've designed, here's the shopping center before you've built it. And you can walk all the way around, and zoom in, it seems all very nice.
The big surprise, though, was the news a few months ago that the head of Namco – the company that originally made PacMan, and they made most of the world's arcade machines after that – the head of global business development for Namco came and had a look at our technology. And after looking at the technology, he decided, in his words, that this looked like what the whole world had been waiting for.
He wanted to be a part of it, and he resigned from his position at Namco to join up with us to form a company to take hologram tables, put games on them, and spread hologram games all over the world.
So these hologram tables will be coming out in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some of them for games, in computer game arcades, probably about mid-2018. We're a lot more advanced in that field than people realize.
Others will be used in councils and workplaces for planning, things like that.
Loz: So I'm trying to work out how it ends up working. You're best off standing up, because you want the table to occupy the maximum possible area of view?
Correct. If you sat down and put your head level with the table, it wouldn't project more than 5 cm (2 in) really. By standing up, you get much, much taller buildings. But people using it, they don't really think about that. They just go "wow, floating buildings!"
Loz: So how do you handle the edges of the table, because that's like your horizon for the holograms?
The holograms fade out before they reach the edges, so people never really have to figure out how it's working. If there was a direct cut line, people would literally think the top of their toy was cut off. They wouldn't comprehend it as "it's reached the end of the table," they'd comprehend it as "my toy building is doing something weird on the top."
By fading it out, they just go "well, that's how the hologram works. If it's too tall, it fades away." As far as they're concerned, as they walk around the table, they're seeing something and there's nothing that makes them think "oh, I can see how this works …" We're pretty good at doing what we do!
A 1.5-m table is pretty large, it's a pretty big square. That's the first prototype. But a lot of people have come to us asking if we can build much bigger ones. Four-meter (13-ft) ones that can do whole cities, things like that.
Loz: and is there any reason why you can't do that?
We'd probably have to run the projectors from above, otherwise you'd need a big hole in the floor. It'd be too big. Or we could put lots of smaller projectors in it … It's something we have to work out as we try to make lots of different shapes and sizes.
Loz: That sounds like it'd get quite complicated.
Well, we like complicated! That's what we do!
Loz: So you've got these tables in prototype form at the moment, how long until you can see them being commercialized?
We'd like to see them ready in February 2018. At the moment, we're about to start the manufacturing process.
We've teamed up with Modelworks and Aerometrics. One of them does 3D models of whole cities by flying over them and scanning everything in. The other one, they make the cities by hand, but they make them very accurately. And they do a really good job, too.
Between these two groups, they have lots and lots of cities that have been scanned and recreated in very great detail. So what we're able to do is release these tables first of all for councils, or fire brigades, police, governments, railroads, those sorts of civic organizations.
There'll be a shop built into the table so they can buy new areas directly per square kilometer. Say I've only got Melbourne up to here. We can say "I want that square, that square, that square …" It's like the iTunes store, but for giant geospatial maps using terabytes of data.
And we actually have the world's fastest internet streaming system for 3D graphics. That's also official, we did a big test with about 1,000 companies last year, and it all went very nicely. So we can stream terabytes of data very, very quickly over the internet.
I mean, if you need a new city model, and you order it and it takes four days to download … When you need it, you need it now. If it doesn't arrive for four days, I won't need it by then, I will have found another way.
So the fact that we can stream the data directly to the table, but also download it to the table over four days … At first it'll be streamed, but eventually it'll be stored in the table, that makes it a really nice device to get you exactly what you want when you need it.
Say you're looking at a city and you need the update, because they've put a new bridge in there. You'd just say "give me the new one!"
At first, it'll be a thing that projects giant multi-terabyte 3D scans of cities. Really, really big ones, much bigger than what computers have really handled before. It really opens up a whole new area of computing on a much bigger scale.
Loz: And it should be awesome for gaming, too.
At the moment, we have quite a few games that are being developed for the table. I can't say much about that, it's all confidential. But we think by mid-next year, you're going to see a lot of tables with a lot of games for multi players, who can walk around the table.
Some of them action games, like Street Fightery things, but now your characters are on the table fighting. All sorts of different games will come out by mid next year.
Computer game arcades, according to Wikipedia, used to make more money than all music, sport and movies combined. But then what you could get in your home was the same as what you could get in the arcade, and so the industry dropped down to be quite small. Not too small, Bandai Namco still makes 6.5 billion dollars a year, so they're doing ok.
But they said "what we need is something you do not get in the home." So now the arcades have a lot of games where you're sitting on a motorbike, or in a car that shakes around … They're trying to find a way to give people something they can't get in their house.
Having hologram tables – they probably won't appear in the home any time too soon – but potentially, with good games on them, it's an attempt at reviving the game arcade model. We'll see how it goes, but whatever happens, it'll be interesting.
Loz: I assume one of the things that makes it appropriate for an arcade but not the home is that they'll cost a squillion dollars?
Well they're not that expensive. The more we manufacture, the more we can get the price down. Or we can do some sort of revenue share model, that's quite common in the video game industry. But the table's going to come out at about AU$60,000.
There will be bigger, more luxurious tables for more money. Say I'm a company that's trying to get a contract to build a skyscraper, or an aeroplane terminal. We might be showing five different design options as part of the tender process. We're talking about hundred million dollar, billion dollar projects if we get them, and if we don't get chosen, we get nothing.
A hologram table, it doesn't make you win straight out, but it does break the ice. People say "I've never seen this, wow" and it puts them in a happy state. The cost of the hologram table is a good investment for these sorts of companies.
What we're hearing for people is, can you make us a bigger one? Is there anything else you can do to make this more luxurious, because we're prepared to pay. So we'll probably come out with a $60,000 model, a $200k model, a $600k model, a million-dollar model … What exactly that million-dollar version does, I'm not sure. It might be something you can walk across. But it'll be in different shapes and sizes for different people and different industries.
There's also a lot more wealthy people in the world than ever before. India announced a few years ago that they had a million millionaires – and that's in American dollars. China, of course, has got far more than that and the Middle East has many. So perhaps, like women buying Gucci and Prada, we're already seeing that the hologram table is a bit like a male Gucci bag.
People go "Wow! I want it!" "Well, why do you want it?" "I don't know! I'll think of that later!" For many of them they conclude, well, I can have a map of my area. So when I go to discuss my business plans, I can bring up a map and say "over here in this part of Melbourne, there's some shops, and over here, there's …"
But already we're seeing a lot of males going "awesome, it's finally here! Who cares about a Ferrari, I can get a hologram table." That's the status symbol for 2017…
Loz: Well 60 grand is a lot cheaper than a Ferrari.
Indeed. Things here have become very exciting. A lot of people have been flying in from overseas. There will be a lot of media around it. I don't know if it's because people have low expectations of it, but when they see it, everyone's very happy with what they see.
More information: Euclideon
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