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VR and holograms seem to be tomorrow's dream technology - but it turns out that if you showed a VR headset to someone from the 1800s, they might not be as freaked out as you think...
Tupac's back on stage with Snoop. ODB’s part of the Wu-Tang Clan again. ABBA are touring next year. And it’s all true, depending on your point of view — literally.
Of course, these are all virtual experiences; the the type of fake news we seem to be happy to buy into. Or at least the tens of thousands of Coachella attendees, who watched Tupac raise a virtual middle finger on stage, were.
But first things first: these aren’t holograms. Even the makers of celebrity “holograms” shy away from the term, coyly refer to them as ‘digital humans”.
However, whilst we’re willingly buying into one myth, we’re still being fooled: tricked into thinking that this experience is something more modern than a spruced-up illusion from the 19th century.
And it’s just one of a string of old ideas that make up the toolkit for our modern Virtual Reality experiences.
The reprise of the rappers relies on Pepper’s Ghost.
It's an old theatre trick from the mid-1800s, an illusion that almost literally relies on smoke and mirrors to work. It simply requires a dark space, a well-polished sheet of glass, and a willing audience.
The type of “ghost” you summon just depends on the technology available. Back in Victorian times, a bright lamp and some spooky garb amounted to cutting-edge tech. Today, having eschwed people in white sheets making “ooooooooh” noises for digital animations of dead pop stars, the mechanics and the effect are just the same.
But the hologram of Tupac we really want is a much more complicated beast: we want him free-standing, animated, and viewable from any angle. Just… there, IRL.
Frankly, the likelihood of us witnessing a “real” hologram in our lifetime is slim. The main reason we won’t see holograms for a Very Long Time is that - duh - making things appear out of thin air is as hard as it sounds.
But surely there's something out there a bit like the holograms we crave?
As usual, the answer is, “yes, with an if;” or “no, with a but.”
At the moment, the closest implementations are impressive but simple: basic wireframe models hovering a few centimetres in the air, bounced around by mirrors and hanging from tiny laser strings.
Green-hued and shimmering, the lasers will be familiar to anyone who hangs around in nightclubs. (Depending on how hedonistic you are, maybe the idea of these lasers taking on a life of their own doesn’t seem so far-fetched.)
We've kept trying to create new experiences that satisfy our desire for the three-dimensional. Some, like the Nintendo 3DS have provided a tiny, portable glimpse of the magic. Others, like 3D movies, are the cinematic equivalent of Periodical Cicadas, emerging every 17 years to a largely irritated public, before quickly disappearing again.
Today, VR offers the most "real" 3D experience. And here’s where the Victorians, ruthlessly in search of enlightenment in all its forms, were pioneers again. It’s unsettling to think that today’s cutting edge VR technology would appear reasonably familiar to even working-class Victorians.
Stereoscopic Photography emerged only a couple of decades after photography’s invention in the mid-1800s.
By showing a slightly different image to each eye, it works on exactly the same principle as VR headsets, the 3DS and 3D movies. The headsets are so similar to Google Cardboard and DayDream that it would be easy enough to adapt one for use with a modern phone showing stereoscopic video.
Cheap to produce and distribute, the Steroscope gave many Victorians their first glimpse of art treasures, in the form of 3D recreations of famous paintings. And of course, like any technology that improves visual immersion, there was a discreetly-booming industry in erotica - albeit one cloaked in the guise of “artist’s aids.”
In an era of extreme prudishness, the Stereoscope became a literal peephole to saucy images of nubile young women.
(Interesting side note: Brian May from Queen collects Stereoscopic photos, although it’s unclear if he owns any of the hard stuff.)
*Stereoscopic Photo from Dr Brian May's collection, via The Tate*
So as we push for the Holodeck, we’ll need to compromise for a while and create the appearance of a hologram - a seriously meta concept - via Augmented Reality glasses.
And once multiple users wearing AR glasses can simultaneously see the same “hologram” from their specific point of view - as the Hololens promises - then the experience will be so overwhelmingly OMG-I-can-see-that-you-can-see-that-too then who’ll bother arguing if it’s "really" hovering in front of us or not?
AR is about envisioning the world, re-shaped to our personal specification, and guess what: this dream of visualising another world alongside ours was a Victorian phenomenon too.
At the tail end of his time hammering out increasingly strained mysteries for Sherlock Holmes to solve, Arthur Conan-Doyle plunged head-first into the world of Spirit Photography.
Spirit Photographs, he claimed, were images of ghosts and ectoplasm captured in portraits created by psychic mediums. He published books of ghost photographs and earnestly defended them against cynics who claimed that the images were double exposures: mere photographic trickery.
They were, of course, mere photographic trickery. The ghosts were people; the ectoplasm, muslin cloth. But a curious public lapped them up all the same, thrilled by the idea of seemingly (un-)living things appearing in our world.
If you think we’ve moved on from that, scroll through the missives from an annoying Snapchat user. Snapchat’s Lenses have become ubiquitous to the point that you may never want to see a cartoon dog’s features superimposed on a human face ever again.
And yet the favoured filter of fitness models the world over is an example of how AR has already assimilated: by augmenting the mundane by introducing unusual things into our world, life becomes, briefly, more interesting. Or annoying.
Today's AR technologists are - just like Conan-Doyle - storytellers at heart, simply giving the public what they want.
It’s almost cute that humans have been hankering for ways of incorporating magic into our lives for so long.
We long for un-reality. Something more interesting. Something impossible.
Essentially, as a society, we’ve been hunting magic forever. Mirrors, tricks of the light, taking advantage of the dumb-smart way our eyes work: we’ve been doing this for hundreds of years and nothing has changed. Except that now these visual slights-of-hand are going to respond to our whims, fulfil our dreams, and make our world seem wild.
So strap on your headset, because for the foreseeable future, it’s Virtual Reality that will deliver the weird experience we truly desire: a world where the user can willingly suspend disbelief and emotionally engage with stuff that appears before them.
And if that isn’t magic, then what is?
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