Use hand gestures to interact with science fiction’s most notable ships in 3-dimensions on the Looking Glass volumetric display.
Imagine the future portrayed in science fiction films and even fantasy stories; portraits that come to life and interact, fully 3D cars you can glimpse through seemingly flat frames, and interactive windows into far off places or long-gone eras that can be seen without holding a smartphone or wearing a headset. This isn’t the speculative future, it’s the present, and this is a technology that isn’t reserved for huge studios with billion-dollar theme parks but rather one that independent vanguard labs like ourselves are experimenting with today.
Holograms can help bring more magic into visitors’ lives and can help propel out-of-home experiences into the next chapter of interaction, education, and entertainment. In a post-Covid world, visitors don’t want to touch, but they still want to explore, interact, and go “hands on” (but without actually putting their hands on anything.) This intersection of hologram 3D and no-touch interactivity is close to real magic, and it’s an uncharted territory we’ve stepped into recently.
The 3rd Dimension
In the past handful of weeks, we were lucky enough to partner with our friends at Looking Glass to experiment with an early release of their new Portrait device. This miraculous device, about the size of a picture frame, uses light field technology to create 3D images with depth and dimensionality but without the need for wearable lenses or 3D glasses. Photo realistic pictures, video, and 3D scenes can all be displayed easily on the device. So, naturally, we did what you’d expect any collection of self-respecting nerds to do: we filled it with starships. This proof of concept allows you to view the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, the USS Enterprise from Star Trek, the TARDIS from Doctor Who, the DeLorean Time Machine from Back to the Future, and the Eagle 5 from Spaceballs, all set within tailor made 3D environments filled with as many lights, stars, and plaid warp tunnels as possible. We also didn’t stop with those 3D scenes.
As creators of interactive experiences, we wanted to let viewers participate in the exploration. We have a few Leap Motion devices (from Ultraleap) which bring world-class hand tracking to a compact package that’s easy to plug in and experiment with. After some minimal tinkering we made it possible for anyone viewing the Looking Glass proof of concept to rotate our starships in the air with simple, intuitive hand gestures. Make a fist and rotate left, right, up, or down to make the ship on screen mimic the behavior, or swipe your hand through the air to change between scenes. This very natural and touch-free interaction feels great and looks straight out of the sci-fi films we were inspired by!
This may seem like a small slice of the future, but putting this proof of concept together took all of the same tools we are familiar with today. We used Blender to create or modify all the models required, and used Unity to set up the scenes with dynamic lighting and all the cool motion effects (the TARDIS time tunnel is especially mesmerizing) and to handle the bulk of the interactivity. Then, because Looking Glass can be hooked up to a computer, it made it easy to plug in the Leap Motion and add it as an interface device. Although this proof of concept is definitely rough around the edges, we were equally impressed by how accessible these two technologies were to integrate. It may seem like techno-sorcery, but we assure you it isn’t (although you can tell your friends it is, if that will impress them at cocktail parties.)
This technology opens to the door to limitless possibilities. Without adding any additional devices, this test execution lets us display a 3D model, scene, or collection of both and then enhance it with any interactions that hand gestures can conjure; all without the need for physical touch. As visitors become more and more conscious of how many hands come in contact with a touchscreen, we see this as another barrier we can lower between guests and the fun interactives we know they love. With just these points of engagement there could be so many applications across multiple industries. Here are just a few.
Interactive components within exhibits could be enhanced with “full” 3D through holograms. In the past we’ve been able to create non-interactive holograms for the Photo Ark exhibit (where we crafted a color changing hologram chameleon) and for the Reading Public Museum, where we brought their 2,300-year-old mummy Nefrina to life as a walking, talking, lifelike display. We’ve also created numerous interactive activations for museums—most recently for a museum exhibit honoring the life and accomplishments of Jane Goodall DBE—which challenge visitors to learn by doing, bringing a level of engagement that only comes from hands-on interaction. But with the combination of these two technologies we could create interactive holograms (Mount Everest, perhaps?) that convey the depth of a physical installation with the engagement value of a touchscreen. And the best part is there’s nothing to clean as all the interaction would happen in the air right before your very eyes.
Another space where technology is regularly embraced is in retail, where it’s not uncommon to see interactive displays in electronics or toy stores showcasing the newest products. As parents of young kids (and, let’s face it, collectors of toys even as fully grown adults) we see tons of opportunity to bring touchless hologram interactivity to out of home shopping. Imagine, for example, if you were in a store shopping for LEGO. It would be fantastic to see kits fully built in realistic 3D, rotate them to explore details and unique features, scale them up and down or even view them life-sized! Since many 3D assets of these kits already exist, it wouldn’t even be prohibitively difficult to create, and new kits could be uploaded into an existing experience as they are released!
We’ve also been able to help with out of home events to promote announcements or major releases (such as the premiere of National Geographic’s MARS, or Crime Con at which we premiered Forensic Detective) and at such an event it’s not uncommon to see interactives that push the bleeding edge (including VR and, of course, AR). So, it seems very in-line to bring interactive holograms to the table. Using this same combination of Looking Glass Portrait and Leap Motion Controller we could create rotatable planets (or planet-sized space stations) or interactive 3D dioramas from iconic franchises. Imagine attending an Avengers event only to see a fully 3D Infinity Gauntlet that you could control with your own hand in mid-air! The applications are as limitless as the imagination.
Every day technological advancements drag the “what if” future a little closer to the present, and we have the exciting opportunity to help close that gap. With companies like Looking Glass and Ultraleap developing the hardware, and imaginative individuals crafting the experiences, it won’t be long before we may see gigantic 3D sharks extending out of movie marquees or something totally new. What we know for certain is that the only thing that limits us now are the inspiration and the opportunities.
If any of these ideas sound similar to something you’re already considering, or if you’ve got some other ideas you’d love to explore: please let us know! We can work with you to determine what technology or combination of technologies is the right fit, then help make the dream a (hologram) reality!