The idea of teleportation has been around for a long time but the concept has proven difficult to move from science fiction into reality. Not the least of which is that it would likely prove deadly. In other words, the person that would emerge at the other end of the process wouldn’t be you; it would be a copy of you, exact in every detail but not you.
But what if you could create the impression you had teleported? Would you care? Granted, for something like a vacation, walking into a room and then having it look and sort of feel like being there might not be the same. But what about meetings? Given one meeting room is like any other, why couldn’t you use virtual reality to seem to be there without all of the aggravation of traveling?
This was the promise of video conferencing, but that fell well short of feeling like you were there. Now it appears that Microsoft has moved to address this problem far more aggressively with something tied to the HoloLens effort, called holoportation.
Let’s refresh on HoloLens for a moment. HoloLens is a relatively unique product; well, it was until recently, when Sulon Q, a small startup, launched an interesting alternative. What both products do is blend reality (the stuff actually around you) with virtual reality so that it becomes far more difficult to tell what is virtual and what is real.
HoloLens is the far more mature offering of the two but its downside is that the virtual item often looks somewhat transparent and almost ghostlike. Sulon Q renders everything but that tends to give everything a cartoon-like appearance due to the massive computing power it takes to render a full screen of extremely high-resolution images in real time.
As a result, HoloLens tends to lend itself more to professional implementations where visual accuracy would be very important and Sulon Q more to gaming where folks are already accustomed to dealing with lower resolutions and images that just approximate reality.
Holoportation takes this concept one big step further. Rather than rendering an artificial construct, it takes a broadcast 3D image and renders it realistically in a virtual environment. It uses at least four 3D cameras placed around the transmission studio (imagine them built into the corners of an office or conference room wall) to capture a full image. Then it cuts out all but the subject and stitches the images together into a virtual image that it then sends to the remote site.
The remote viewer, using a headset, then sees the person as if he or she is actually there. If both parties are wearing headsets, it seems more like they are in the same room, but then you have the distraction of the headset. The HoloLens headset looks more like large dark glasses than a typical VR headset does, but the fact remains that it really only looks natural if the broadcasting side isn’t using a headset.
I think Microsoft has the beginning of something with holoportation, but I think it would be better used as a way to document something than for remote conferences, simply because of the headset. For example, if you wanted to fully document a critical contract discussion because you were afraid of a breach, this technology would give a judge/arbitrator a ring-side seat that would be no different from his or her actually being there. It could be invaluable, particularly if you are talking about a small firm against a far larger and better funded one. Facial expressions, side conversations, virtually everything that went on in the room, would be part of the record.
This would also work for iconic events. Imagine what you could do with a full 3D image of Steve Jobs launching, well, anything, Walt Disney opening Disneyland, or Bill Gates announcing Windows 95? It would be a moment in history that could grace a museum or corporate lobby forever. But to really close the door on true holoportation, you’d need to lose the goggles. You could do that virtually with a 3D image of the person’s face, instrumenting of the eyes (for expression), and the ability to render that where the glasses reside so that the remote viewer wouldn’t see them. Both sides would then be able to reside in this partially rendered world and not have the distraction of the glasses. Given how much real-time rendering this system is doing, I doubt the extra processing power needed is that far in the future. Once that is done, most of us with access to this technology might choose to use it rather than traveling. Until then, holoportation provides a tantalizing look at what may be in a few years.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+.