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Princess Leia visits NAB

It's hard to believe it has been 32 years since George Lucas introduced millions of filmgoers to the concept of holographic video. In the original “Star Wars” movie, Lucas created a memorable scene where Princess Leia appeared to Obi-Wan Kenobi as a live video hologram pleading: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you're my only hope.” That famous special effect has stayed with us through the years, and it seems we are now approaching the time when science fiction is coming closer to being science fact.

Not just a science project

At this year's NAB, the Japanese National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), with relatively little fanfare, demonstrated its latest development in video holography. The demonstration, a small, noisy hologram that floated in the air, was far from the level of a sophisticated Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) special effect. (ILM, located at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, is one of Hollywood's go-to special effects houses.)

As a result, most attendees just walked right by it or took a passing peek, thought it was gimmicky and kept walking. Even many of those who did stop to look dismissed it as a science fair project. But for a few, just viewing that magical apparition was enough to give them pause. It was like watching a scene of Alexander Graham Bell's noisy, crackly voice being heard in 1876 in the other room from his lab saying, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Or perhaps more on point, it was like a view of Stooky Bill being transmitted from pioneering television developer John Logie Baird's laboratory in 1925 as a 30-line mechanically scanned image at five pictures per second. Some had the presence of mind to realize that they were viewing a moment in history — the infancy of a technology that will have far-reaching effects on our society in the decades to come. For far-flung applications from broadcast to medical, from advertising to entertainment, the utilization of electronic holography will absolutely revolutionize everything it touches.

NICT, with a long development history in specialized imaging and communications technologies, continues to move its electronic holography project forward. The current iteration, which it calls gCubik, generates 3-D images inside a cube that is approximately 10cm on a side and is readily viewable with no need for special glasses. It is three times brighter, exhibits less noise and has twice the resolution of the previous generation implementation. The floating-in-air ethereal image that is generated can be viewed from any of the six facets of that ephemeral cubic display. Thus, you can view what's “inside” from all directions. It also produces that innately human “Wet paint: Do not touch” curiosity reaction that we all have. How many times have you left a sticky fingerprint? You just cannot help that uncontrollable urge to put your hands out there to “touch” the image. gCubik will be on display next month at the SIGGRAPH 2009 event in New Orleans from Aug. 3-7. If you are there, you owe it to yourself to drop by and view history in the making.

Holographic video to the home

Last year, SMPTE gathered together one of its largest task forces ever. The group's charge was to define those standards that would be needed for a 3-D television system from content generation through delivery to the home. The result of the effort, “Report of SMPTE Task Force on 3D to the Home,” was announced at the 2009 NAB Show and is now available as a 75-page download at

Clearly, we are in the Bell and Baird era of live holographic video, so perhaps it is a tad premature for the convening of yet another new technology task force. Given the rapidity of 21st century technological advancements, however, this broadcast industry veteran hopes to still be around for the release of the “Report of SMPTE Task Force on Holographic Video to the Home.” After all, just look at how far we have come since that fateful SMPTE Winter Television Conference in San Francisco in February 1981. It was there that Japan's NHK provided a demonstration of its developmental 1125/60 MUSE (multiple subnyquist sampling encoding) HDTV system. From experimental MUSE to ATSC HDTV, from analog 4:3 to digital 16:9 — a virtually complete transition occurred in just 29 years.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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