Interview: Behind the holographic table
Anna Mitchell catches up with Euclideon’s Bruce Dell, the man sitting behind what’s being called “the world’s first multi-user holographic table”.
It seems unlikely that what is being dubbed as the world’s first multi-user holographic table was born from the perception that the demise of VR was imminent. But, according to its creator Bruce Dell, that’s exactly what happened.
To find out why, we need to rewind to 2010 when Dell, founder and CEO of Euclideon, was baffling the tech world with a breakthrough that, in his own words, “made computers 1,000 times faster”. His ‘Unlimited Detail’ graphics rendering tool was appearing to run 3D graphics - that should have required the processing power of a super computer - from a standard laptop.
By way of explaining the surprising achievement, Dell says that, after showing early artistic talent, he was encouraged to pursue creative subjects at school. As a result, he never received formal training in programming.
“When I encountered problems, I didn’t know the normal way to solve them,” he says and believes that by working them out his own way he was able to approach challenges in a fresh way. Hence the creation of Unlimited Detail.
“We decided to prepare for the eventual crash of virtual reality.”The technology was particularly successful in the field of geospatial imaging, where various organisations used it to run models, created by laser scans, of entire cities. As virtual reality technologies started to gain traction, VR/AR seemed like an obvious area for Euclideon to enter.
But, that’s when Dell took a step back.
“We thought if we start preparing technology for VR, it will take two or three years. I had to ask myself ‘where will VR be in three years’ time?’,” says Dell.
“If I was going to put all the company’s resources into what would be a new direction for us, then I needed to know that VR wouldn’t go the same way that 3D TVs did: everybody buys them, everybody talks about them and then, they’re over.”
Research with people who had bought VR headsets, gaming companies and companies that had tried VR for commercial applications led Dell to one conclusion: “We decided to prepare for the eventual crash of virtual reality.”
With that assumption made, Dell set about trying to predict what would happen.
“If VR isn’t going to work then we will still have a society more hungry for 3D technology so what can we do?” he asked. He started to look at work, almost exclusively limited to research in universities, into hologram development and light manipulation.
Or as Dell puts it: “We began to play with light waves.”
The resulting Hologram Table measures 1.4m square and allows four people to view a model, each seeing it from their own perspective and only wearing lightweight glasses, similar those used for 3D cinema. It’s interactive too, with users able to navigate the model and zoom in and out using a wand.
Exactly how Euclideon is creating the effect we don’t know. But, to massively simplify the description Dell provided, it uses a projector to bend light on to a different spectrum, while the glasses decode the effect, delivering the correct view to the wearer.
“We’ve ended up with this table that creates ghost buildings and cars,” Dell says. “They’re made out of light. You put your hand up to touch them and it goes straight through. The reaction we got was ‘wow, we’ve seen this for 40 years in science fiction and now the real thing is here.’”
When Euclideon starting showing the table to companies they were already working with locally, and other interested parties, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive but they started to hear a similar request cropping up time after time.
“They wanted it to be bigger,” says Dell.
It seemed like the price didn’t matter in many of the areas where the table was in demand.
Dell offers an example: “We were speaking to a company that wanted to secure a $25 billion building project. They didn’t care about the cost in comparison to what they would gain if the Hologram Table helped them to visualise and convey their vision and led to a successful bid.”
Euclideon worked out that bespoke units, including larger tables, could be created by rigging projectors in the ceiling and not under the table. This revelation changed the business model. Rather than creating a standard table that would be shipped and, to some extent, act as a plug and play product, Euclideon started to look at also building a distribution network of skilled installers that could create custom built rooms and tables of varying sizes.
“This table creates ghost buildings and cars. They’re made out of light. You put your hand up to touch them and it goes straight through.”
So there’s plenty of room here for AV installers and distributors to take the product on and make money from their expertise in installation, service and support.
The table is tipped for launch in 2018 and Dell is reporting interest from the military, real estate companies, mining, government and casinos to name just a few. In another interesting twist, 20-year Namco veteran Alex Orban recently joined the Euclideon team with the specific task of taking the product into the computer game entertainment market. “It could end up being the arcade machine of the future,” says Dell.
Dell’s energy and excitement when outlining the prototype, its possibilities and the interest it is sparking is evident and infectious. He’s creating an effect that people haven’t seen before, which is a rare thing itself. But, he’s not just capturing the attention of people who want to use this for its novelty value or even to merely entertain. He outlines some very solid business cases of where the product can be used to truly deliver a return on investment. We hope to see more on this one in 2018.