Another step forward in making Star Trek tech a reality

By Staff Reporter, Brittany Gamboa

From the days of seeing Princess Leia‘s flickering holographic message to Obi-Wan asking for help, to the Holodecks of Star Trek fame; many of us have dreamed of seeing true 3-demensional holograms that we can interact with. I was honored to have the opportunity to speak with a team of scientists who are working steadily to make one aspect of that dream come true.

Using life-size hologram-like telepods that are set to revolutionize the entire notion of videoconferencing and communication as we know it, the technology grants us the ability to stand in front of one another via holographic, or “stereographic” imagery, using cylindrical pods; while conventional videoconferencing tools such as Oovoo and Skype are principally flat and one-dimensional.

Using what Dr. Roel Vertegaal, an associate professor in Human-Computer Interaction, along with his colleagues at Queen’s Human Media Lab in Ontario-Canada have created, we can essentially see one another with a full 360 view. This technological vision derives from when we saw xbox users earlier in the year who were gifted enough to manipulate the Microsoft Xbox Kinect’s features; using the Kinect’s dual-cameras the team was able to achieve the holographic images. There are 6 Kinects placed atop 1.8 meter-tall acrylic pods, a conventional 3-D projector, and a convex mirror.

Looking at the same technology but using it as a human body simulator, the “Biopod” was created as well. A subject can step closer to the pod and with the wave of his hand, reveal layers of the image’s tissue, muscles, organs, and finally their bone structure. This technology is so advanced it responds to voice commands, such as we see used in the iPhone and in our GPS systems. Commands can be said to show a specific part of the human body and the pod will show a precise 3D model of it.

Speaking to Dr. Joel Vertegaal and his colleague Professor Jeremy Cooperstock, I was told what factors and influences made this project. I was at the time unfortunately unable to speak to the rest of the team whom consisted of: Peng Wang, Kibum Kim, and John Bolton.

Brittany Gamboa (BG): What were the more significant challenges that had to be overcome to get this to work?

Dr. Vertegaal: One of the problems was to create the 3-D images on the actual life-size model, and when the Kinect came out it made it much easier.

BG: What other techniques were considered for rendering the holographic effect?

Dr. Vertegaal: 8 years ago, we considered using a disc that created an image every time it spun, but the company unfortunately, went south.  Though, with the cylindrical display there was no distortion and the advantage there was that it was full size.

Dr. Vertegaal’s colleague, Prof. Jeremy Cooperstock (JC), had this to say on the subject:

BG: How much processing power does it take to do this?

JC: With regard to processing power, I believe that this can all be done on commodity PCs with current graphics cards.  And yes, a bigger display is certainly possible, but unnecessary for achieving the representation of a life-size human.  More important, I believe, would be improving the video quality, and this is something on which Roel and I hope to work in the near future.

BG: What were the influences the team had in producing technology such as this?

JC: There is a lengthy history of previous research efforts that inspired the TeleHuman technology; these are reviewed briefly in our CHI paper.  In addition, we have long been interested in the possibilities of achieving more perceptually convincing representations of remote individuals than is available through conventional videoconferencing technologies, as these may have profound significance in the future of human-human communications.

In order to collaborate with his colleagues on the project smoothly, Professor Cooperstock mentioned during the interview, “I was involved (ironically, through Skype) in helping design the evaluation experiments that were used to assess the impact on different aspects of the technology”.

It has been approximately one month since this technology has been released by Dr. Vertegaal and his team; during that time they demonstrated Tele-Human and Bodipod at an international human-computer interaction conference, CHI 2012 in Austin-Texas earlier in May. Dr. Vertegaal has also verified that he is developing this product for commercial applications, though he cannot state for whom or for how much.

What we have seen so far gives us an idea of how we can use this technology to better our world and ourselves, in ways we only previously thought possible in science fiction and in our imaginations. With interactive 3D holographic videoconferencing, we can look at the potential uses; such as allowing soldiers to communicate with far away family members, engineers being able to share complex designs and work on them together in real time, and so much more.

On a final note by Dr. Vertegaal, “Why Skype when you can talk to a life-size 3-D holographic image of another person?


The Human Media Lab