Okay well I guess the short answer to the question there in the headline is "Some PR person emailed me and said 'hey, you wanna try out our new holopresence tech?'" So obviously, I took them up on it. Who doesn't want to be a hologram?
And so it was that I found myself in the downtown Boston studio-office of ARHT Media, a Toronto-based holopresence company that began in 2014. The basics are pretty simple: a projector, sending an image to a proprietary reflective mesh with lights behind the screen to block out any image bleed (these screens, along with the studio space, are the company's main product). CEO Larry O'Reilly beamed in to chat with me from the central offices — and I have to admit, it was a surprisingly natural-seeming conversation. He was standing on a green screen, but he looked to me like a normal albeit oddly translucent full-sized human being. Once I got over the roughly 0.3-second delay, we were able to communicate in real-time; within about a minute, I'd forgotten I was talking to a hologram, and our conversation immediately felt far more organic than anything I've ever done over Zoom. There was a camera monitor in the lobby space where I was seated, so that O'Reilly could see us back and interact with us; from his vantage point, on that green screen in Toronto, there was a monitor that marked the line of eyesight, so he could appear more naturally as if he was actually interacting directly with me (the Boston green screen studio had a similar setup).
During our chat, O'Reilly explained that the company's largest client base is in the healthcare industry, so that doctors, technicians, and other specialists can share knowledge and experience from across the globe, without sinking all that money and time into travel. Instead of booking a hotel for a weekend-long conference, for instance, one healthcare provider recently booked a few restaurants in cities across the country, and used ARHT's technology to beam in the presenters to each location simultaneously. As an added bonus, those presenters could also use ARHT's software to incorporate 3D graphics and other videos into their presentations, making the whole event feel a little more interactive despite the fact that it's essentially a simulcast video.
And then, of course, they let me become my own hologram. I didn't really chat with anyone across the world, but it was still kinda fun to see.
As far as I understand, it'll cost you around $60K for the projection screen setup with five years of tech support — which, to be fair, is way less than most companies spend on travel and conferences each year. (The company had also smartly worked out their pitch to ensure it mentioned the impact on reducing carbon emissions, which is admittedly a clever marketing angle.) More recently, ARHT has released a new Capsule that's basically a hologram box that you can move with you anywhere. At first glance, it felt sillier to me than the projection screen … but then I realized, it wasn't so far off from hologramming Emperor Palpatine into Vader's chamber either. Apparently someone even used ARHT's tech to beam a bridesmaid into a wedding at the height of the initial COVID outbreak. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of this stuff in the near future — and, to my surprise, it's actually cool and effective.