Help me Obi-wan Kenobi! Most 30 and 40 year old men will recognize these words spoken by Princess Leia’s holographic image in the iconic scene from the first Star Wars film. 3D holographic communication is commonplace in a “Galaxy Far Far Away…”, as imagined by George Lucas.  But even before this type of communication was envisioned in the Star Wars universe, people had already imagined a future in which 3D images were the norm.

3D image technology was invented in the early19th century when Scottish inventor David Brewster invented the Stereoscope in 1807. This device produced photographic pictures in 3D.

Almost a century later, the first commercial 3D presentation took place at the Astor Theater in New York City, on June 10, 1915. The film showed rural scenes of the US and Niagara Falls in 3D. A few decades later, in 1947, the soviet’s released the first feature-length movie in color and 3D, a version of Robinson Crusoe by Alexander Andreyevsky’s.

During the 50’s and 60’s, a good number of 3D movies were made, usually on low budgets, emphasizing scenes that would startle the audience  by throwing objects towards the viewers rather than using the 3D images to make for a more natural and realistic visual experience.  After this boom period, the popularity of 3D movies dwindled. These earlier 3D movies projected anaglyph images to provide a stereoscopic 3D effect. When viewed through glasses in which  the two lenses are color opposites (such as red and cyan), images become superimposed, but offset with respect to each other, to produce a depth effect.

Use Red-Cyan glasses

Use Red-Cyan glasses for 3D Effect

In just this past year we have seen a significant increase in the number of movies released on 3D. What makes the latest batch of 3D movies different is that they take advantage of new technologies, such as alternate-frame sequencing and computer animation, to create a truly realistic 3D experience.  James Cameron’s Avatar is the prime example of what current state of the art 3D digital video can achieve.  3D image technology has also been packaged for the home in the latest generation of 3D TVs from Samsung, Panasonic, Sony and most other mayor TV manufacturers. This first generation of commercial 3D displays  provide a satisfying home 3D experience though they require special polarizing glasses. Starting in 2010, 3D TVs are ready for the prime time since digital 3D broadcasting and display technology have converged, a feat that was impractical only few years ago before the age of digital broadcasting.  Just like more and more movies are being released in 3D, more and more TV broadcasting will be produced in this manner.

Perhaps the mild inconvenience of having to wear special glasses to enjoy 3D TVs will become acceptable for the next generation, in the same way that we have become accustomed to the ear buds of first Walkmans and now MP3 players. Though, most likely, we will not have to embrace this inconvenience as new technologies will bypass it.  Technologies, such as Autostereoscopy, will soon allow us to watch a truly immersive experience without the need of special glasses. Toshiba has produced a 3D TV model that will start selling soon which incorporates a polarizing layer on the screen, allowing viewers situated in a specific area before the TV to get the 3D effect without the need of glasses.

So why is 3D TV technology important? Beyond the novelty factor of 3D TVs, this technology has important commercial and social implications on the way we communicate. 3D TV is only a bridge towards more immersive future technologies such as Holographic Volumetric Displays, like the ones being developed by Actuality Systems Inc. These displays allows for a 360 degree 3D view of an image, so that it can be viewed from all angles, like a regular physical object. Current applications of this enhanced 3D technology include medical displays that permit doctors to look at images of patients’ organs as a 3D volume.

In 1876, the telephone was the first device that allowed us to communicate over a great distance at a truly personal level. To many first time telephone users, the experience of hearing the voice of someone far away as if they were standing next to them is still magical today. One day 3D holographic displays may do for the eyes what the phone did for our ears.

3D Holographic displays will greatly enhance the communication experience of applications such as Telepresense. Telepresence, a technology currently commercially available from Cisco Systems, is an impressive set of technologies based on digital compression, internet protocols and telecommunication management. This technology allows for face to face meetings between people around the world through live two way video and audio communications.  Add 3D technology to the mix and you end with a more realistic experience in which 3D realism becomes a substitute for personal human interaction.

As companies and business continue to expand globally and, as larger and larger amounts of data can be transmitted through the internet, remote meetings will become more commonplace and indispensable.  People working on opposite sides of the world will meet in virtual offices to work together at a level not yet possible with current technology.   You might end up in a conference room with just yourself surrounded by 3D holographs of your co-workers scattered across the world.  Travel might not be required to achieve a true personal level of interaction because 3D technology will afford the body language and facial expressions which are as important as the spoken language.  The end of the dreaded commute, as 3D telepresence allows more people to work from home, would mean an explosive increase in productivity for millions of people, and will be a boost to the world economy.

From a social perspective, our personal interactions will also be affected. A family might sit at the dinner table with the whole family when in actuality, only some members are physically present accompanied by 3D holograms of family members scattered throughout the world.  Being able to achieve virtual closeness with far away loved ones will open up many possibilities to grow and maintain relationships with people that live far away, relationships that in the past may have dwindled due to the distance. Our social networks will be enhanced and enriched and this will lead to new social conventions and rules.  With the advent of e-mail and text messaging, the communication has increased dramatically. What we have lost in the process, is the personal interaction with fellow humans. With the advent of 3D technology, we will have to once again face our personal and professional interactions head on, whether in flesh and bones or in holographic digital avatars.  Today’s 3D TVs and movies are only a step, but an important one, in a new era of personal telecommunication.

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