The future of telepresence

PORTL’s new telepresence machine is taking virtual content to a whole new level with its new PORTL Epic hologram machine that promises to revolutionise how we approach conferencing. Reece Webb speaks to Portl’s David Nussbaum to find out more.

None of us are strangers to ‘hologram’ technology and its applications in attractions and entertainment. Few products however make it to market in a way that allows integrators to approach interactive content in a whole new way across a plethora of verticals. Now PORTL’s first commercial product aims to change that by harnessing telepresence technology to open up new opportunities for creative applications.

David Nussbaum, founder and CEO, PORTL, clarifies: “In 2012, I was inspired by the Tupac hologram at Coachella. At the time, I was an executive producer for a digital television network and my company bought the patents that put the Tupac hologram on stage, we bought the patent for the Pepper’s Ghost technology used in the performance.

“At that company we were doing performances with virtual artists, beaming everybody to everywhere like Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to the Nantucket Project. We put Assange on stage with a presenter and they talked to each other, then Assange turned his attention to the audience to answer their questions live. We were bringing lots of late legends back to posthumously perform and beaming the living from wherever they were, to wherever they needed to be. But there was just no way to scale this technology. This was the inspiration for starting PORTL.

The future of telepresence

“Now we’ve seen that the pandemic has shut events down. The entire entertainment industry went away, and they are now looking at live telepresence.”

Enter PORTL’s first product, the PORTL Epic hologram machine. Designed for commercial applications, the [patent pending] product is designed to support full human-sized, life-like interactive communication in 4K resolution. Users can step into the machine to ‘beam’ alive, digital representation of themselves at 1:1 scale with shadows, reflections and a realistic 4K resolution.

Like many developments before it, the PORTL Epic hologram machine is not a true hologram but uses its own telepresence technology to create a unique visual effect. Nussbaum explained: “I started to slowly stop saying ‘hologram’ because we don’t make holograms, and nobody really does when it comes to telepresence or entertainment. We call our technology the ‘PORTL effect’, because it is a two-dimensional image, but because it is projected in an otherwise three dimensional space, the eyeballs see it as a three-dimensional image. When we beam someone from one place to another, we call it ‘PORTL presence’, whether it’s for entertainment, or live speakers, there’s a lot of ways that the technology will evolve into a ‘hologram’ or something akin to it.

The future of telepresence

“Our proprietary production process creates a ‘shadow’ and a reflection with the full-size person in real time or pre-recorded, beaming them with their shadow and reflection. Never before has that happened; With the spinning fans and Pepper’s Ghost and scrims, you need to shut all the lights off in a room. A shadow and a reflection can’t live in darkness, so you just see a cut-out of a person with those technologies. What we’ve done is taken two-dimensional content in 3D space to the next level, it’s as volumetric-like as it can be without being shot biometrically.”

Nussbaum explains, “If someone’s beaming in live, you’re watching this person like they’re really there. You’re engaged as if it were a real time, face-to-face event. We’ve replaced the person with a digital version of that person and made it look as life-like as possible, it’s not like digital ‘holograms’, it’s a real person. If you are in the PORTL, you will look like you. You can walk right up to it, but with older Pepper’s Ghost techniques, you can’t put anybody up in a balcony space because you have a projector bouncing off the floor or LED projecting straight up. When these artists or bands are performing, the lead singer is seven metres back from the ‘hologram’.

“The embedded camera that faces the audience sees and hears the audience in real time, allowing the person in the PORTL to talk to the presenter, you’re having real time conversations; it’s almost like Zoom but with ‘holograms’. We are also developing a few interactive levels of software and technology that is interactive for the audience. A person may be able to interact with the PORTL almost Alexa style, whether live or pre-recorded for retail locations and home environments.”

"If someone’s beaming in live, you’re watching this person like they’re really there. You’re engaged as if it were a real time, face-to-face event" - David Nussbaum, PORTL 

PORTL has set itself up to be usable in a variety of commercial applications, from high quality interactive adverts in retail applications where users can examine and interact with a 3D model of a product, to full scale video conferencing and more.

Nussbaum said: “Imagine walking into a cinema foyer, and all the cardboard cut-outs of the characters are replaced by the actual actors in character who can interact with the audience. These VIP experiences are what we’re focused on, we want to make this as user friendly and experiential as possible. We can also use special effects to fill the PORTL screen with smoke or have people and objects appear on the PORTL Star Trek style or even modify colours so that parts of a person or object are in black and white.”

Nussbaum: “We’ve sold several dozen units at their end user locations and we’re manufacturing another 100+ units going to locations all around the world. The Epic is being purchased for museums, airports, movie theatre lobbies as well as offices, boardrooms and retail.

“We are also looking at consumer play with our PORTL Mini unit. By the end of the year, the Mini [one fifth the size of the Epic at 18-in tall] users will have the ability communicate PORTL to PORTL, and we’re working with content creators and social media influencers and educators on packaging content into PORTL in a MasterClass style. You get the piece of hardware and then you can have an ongoing subscription for interactive and exclusive content, that’s where we’re going with it.”

Looking to the future, the AV world has its part to play in the development of this technology as Nussbaum closes: “We take several meetings weekly with people in the AV industry, we’re talking to speaker manufacturers, a lot of projection companies and more about integrating their technology into ours. I think co-branding a PORTL with a huge brand name that is well known in the AV community that has global distribution, shelf space and a strong customer base, that is something that we are working on. We have yet to finalise any deals on the camera and speaker side and we are constantly testing new cameras and speakers for the PORTL.

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