Once relegated to science fiction’s evocation of The Future, holograms have come a long way since Princess Leia’s iconic plea for help in 1977, and even since musician Will.i.am’s 2008 now famed holographic appearance on CNN. In fact, holograms are now being used at retail stores, hospitals, concert venues and sports stadiums across the country.
What for, you ask? Holograms can help you play a friendly game of tennis with a life-like Roger Federer at the U.S. Open, inspect a virtual human heart, or watch your favorite artist perform from thousands of miles away. Experiences like these are changing how people interact with computer-generated images, and one of the companies driving the technology forward is Van Nuys, California-based startup VNTANA.
The company was started in 2012 after cofounder Ashley Crowder became disillusioned with the limited number of options available to people who wanted to watch live gigs online. “I saw a lot of friends watching livestreamed concerts on their laptops, and I thought it looked miserable,” she says. “Why would you sit at a desk to enjoy a concert without the experience of dancing with your friends and going and meeting people? I thought, ‘What if we could recreate that experience authentically and let artists play multiple venues at the same time?’”
Crowder and cofounder Ben Conway did just that with their innovative hardware and software, which can project the digital rendering of an individual for small and large audiences.
“When we first pitched holograms, there was nothing on the market that was affordable or scalable, so we built or own hardware,” Crowder says. “Our hardware does holographic projections, so it’s technically a two-dimensional light image that’s reflected onto our proprietary screen, which is perfectly clear — so it looks like that person is standing on stage or an image is floating.”
So far, VNTANA (pronounced Vin-ta-na and derived from the Spanish word for window, ventana) has worked with Mercedez-Benz, Pepsi and Virgin America. This year, they the company has partnered with artists for live-hologram events, and it’s working with Microsoft to investigate ways its technology might work alongside the company’s HoloLens, a wireless headset that blends holograms and the real world together.
While holograms are often lumped into the same category with virtual reality or augmented reality, the technologies are actually very different. Holographic systems are usually designed for groups in a shared space and don’t require wearables, while virtual and augmented reality systems typically require some sort of headset. So without any additional gear, holograms allow everyone in a room to experience the same thing and see the same images, Crowder explains.
While today’s holograms are already breaking boundaries, creating compact projections – a la Princess Leia’s aforementioned “Help me, Obi-Wan Kanobi” moment – is still far, far away from reality. “The true holograms that people think of in Star Wars are really a three-dimensional light field,” Crowder explains. “The technology to do that is still very far away. It’s extremely expensive and very limited in color spectrum, so we needed a solution that we could do today that was affordable.”
However, she added: “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
For now, she and her team are committed to making their images as realistic as possible. The company is also concentrating on creating more “lifelike” visuals that can interact with people, she says.
“The innovation that’s continuing today has really been around our interactive software – so you can wave hello and a hologram will say ‘hi’ back,” Crowder says. “You can throw a virtual ball to Roger Federer’s hologram and he’ll hit it back.”
While the company is often described as an entertainment and advertising startup Crowder says she sees a future for VNTANA that goes well beyond concerts and standalone events. One target the company has in mind? Museums.
“Concerts and entertainment are just one aspect of what this can be used for,” she says. “We’ve really focused on brands and advertising this past year, but we’re definitely getting into a few museums this year. [In the future] there could be holographs of mummies, or of artifacts from the Smithsonian in China so museums don’t have to ship fragile artifacts, which is expensive and difficult.”
Despite the company’s recent success and ambitious growth plans, Crowder still runs the business like a newly formed startup – and she doesn’t plan on changing that tactic any time soon. “We maintain a culture of being scrappy but smart with the way we build a product and work,” she says. “It’s been so important to me and my cofounder to maintain that culture no matter who we hire or how big we get.”