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We’re living in a world of 2D displays, and Light Field Lab is trying to fix that by letting us escape from that world. The Silicon Valley startup showed off its latest holographic display platform, dubbed SolidLight, and the company said it is the highest-resolution holographic display ever designed.

And yes, the little chameleon that I saw floating in the air looked a lot better than the pseudo-hologram of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie. While it’s not hard to beat the vision of holograms in a movie from 1977, it has taken an extraordinarily long time to create real holograms that look good. And Jon Karafin, CEO of Light Field Lab, helped me understand why.

I visited Light Field Lab’s headquarters in San Jose, California, and saw the little critter that you see at the top of this story. Karafin took me to a dark room with a bookcase on one side of the wall and Light Field Lab’s SolidLight demo. He closed the door and held a bit of ceremony.

There were faux jungle-like plants and some sound effects playing to set the mood, and in the middle of it was the chameleon. It moved a little and stuck its tongue out to zap a fly and the plastic plants moved when that happened. I could see it was a little fuzzy and more pixelated than its surroundings. But it was a 3D object, as I could move my head and see different parts of the chameleon.

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A patient vision

Above: Light Field Lab’s SolidLight system.

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

It was simple looking but very complex. And it’s been in the works for at least four years.

“It’s exciting because for a long time we have talked about this patient vision to bring about a completely new way to create objects out of light,” Karafin said. “We can show you we have achieved that and now we’re going to be scaling to build much larger things.”

Light Field Lab had to assemble the display from smaller submodules that can produce the hologram. Each submodule, or brick, is 16K by 10K pixels. The brick’s display surface is six inches by four inches.

By putting 15 of those holograms bricks together, the company can assemble a 28-inch holographic display that can project images in front of it. It can push 2.5 billion pixels to the generated holographic object and scale it to any size that fits within the 28-inch display space. The density of the images was about 10 billion pixels per meter. It was amazing, as I saw it working with that little chameleon. I put my hand close, and it went right through it. I moved to the side and the perspective of the chameleon changed. And when I moved away from the display, the litter critter disappeared from my view. If I went really close, I could see a kind of “screen-door” effect, and some pixelation. The images basically have tradeoffs on size, scale, and density.

“This is the first time we are ever revealing the specifications for the tech,” said Karafin. “This is a real technology that we believe has never been show. We are supporting customers now.”

Light Field Lab is now accepting preorders for SolidLight systems as it starts building them for shipment next year.

“In the next few years, you’re going to see some of our first customer installations that are going into huge wall experiences and literally hundreds of billions of pixels,” he said.

Over time, the company aims to use its submodules to create modular holographic video walls that can project gigantic 3D objects, like a dinosaur in a museum. Over time, the company wants to build video walls with 10 billion pixels per meter of resolution, enabling huge displays in places such as theaters, stores, and entertainment centers.

“You’ll be able to see these types of experiences at a very large scale, in very large environments,” Karafin said.

The technology

Above: Looking into a brick.

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

A hologram is the recording and projection of light.

Everything around us is a collection of light energy visible through our eyes and processed by the visual cortex of the brain. The “light field” defines how photons travel through space and interact with material surfaces. The things that we ultimately see as the world around us are bundles of light that focus at the back of our eyes. The trick is getting your eyes to focus on a particular point in space.

Light Field Lab’s technology re-creates what optical physics calls a “real image” for off-screen projected objects by generating a massive number of viewing angles that correctly change with the point of view and location just like in the real world. This is accomplished with a directly emissive, modular, and flat-panel display surface coupled with a complex series of waveguides that modulate the dense field of collimated light rays. With this implementation, a viewer sees around objects when moving in any direction such that motion parallax is maintained, reflections and refractions behave correctly, and the eyes freely focus on the items formed in mid-air. The result is that the brain says, “this is real,” without having any physical objects. In other words, Light Field Lab creates real holograms with no headgear.

There’s no head-tracking, no motion sickness, and no latency in the display.

“And what’s really important to take away is that you don’t see that bird or this flower,” he said. “You see the photons are interacting with the material properties. Ultimately, we’re seeing a wavefront that your eye can freely focus on. And that is hugely important that your eye is naturally focusing, converging, accommodating. And that’s what something a flat display just never can achieve. So what we’re doing is removing this headgear, removing the dragging, removing all this other accessories stuff, and creating real objects.”

Above: Light Field Lab envisions a museum of the future.

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

Light Field Lab’s technologies combine size, resolution and density to project SolidLight Objects that accurately move, refract and reflect in physical space.

The directly emissive modular SolidLight Surfaces form dense converging wavefronts with billions of pixels of photonic resolution. Untethered to gear, SolidLight enables viewers to see digital objects in the physical world that escape the screen and are indistinguishable from reality. OK, you can distinguish as they are now, but in the future, the tech will get better. I’ve already seen it get better since 2018. Back then, a single brick showed me an image that was 160 million pixels running at 60 hertz.

Light Field Lab is starting to deliver its SolidLight turnkey solution to customers are using it to create things like exhibits or retail product displays using holograms. The real-time interactivity is powered by Light Field Lab’s proprietary WaveTracer hardware and software, in conjunction with multiple self-emissive bezel-less SolidLight Surface Panels that form modular holographic video walls.

These SolidLight Surfaces scale to accommodate a wide range of next-generation entertainment, advertising, and commercial applications with an eye towards mass-production in the future to support consumer markets.

“It’s only after you reach out to touch a SolidLight Object that you realize it’s not actually there,” Karafin said. “SolidLight redefines what is perceived as real, reshaping visual communications, audience engagement and customer experiences forever. Our whole mission is to redefine visual communication.”

Origins

Above: Jon Karafin and Brendan Bevensee of Light Field Lab. (Not pictured is founder Ed Ibe).

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

The company was founded in 2017 by Karafin, Brendan Bevensee, and Ed Ibe, with the single mission to enable a holographic future by building upon the founders’ collective expertise of light field technology innovation. The team had experience working at light field capture and display maker Lytro in the past.

Light Field Lab has accomplished its latest milestones without tons of resources. It has 25 full-time people and another 25 contractors. The company raised $35 million to date from a lot of marquee investors including Khosla Ventures, Samsung Ventures, Verizon Ventures, Comcast, Liberty Global Ventures, BoschVentures (RBVC), Taiwania Capital, NTT DoCoMo Ventures, Hella Ventures, AVG, R7 Partners, and ACME Capital.

Better displays

A vision of the future.

Above: A vision of the future.

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

Our televisions and other displays are kind of in a rut, especially after the failure of 3D TVs. As today’s 2D flat panel manufacturers reach a ceiling for scaling display size, resolution and density, Light Field Lab hopes to take holographic experiences to the next level.

Each 28-inch SolidLight Surface Panel contributes 2.5 billion pixels to the generated holographic object volume and the modular SolidLight Surface can eventually scale to create any size display to show experiences with hundreds of billions of pixels.

Light Field Lab started selling some pre-production systems in 2019 and sold them out. Customers started using them to develop their commercial applications, which could start appearing over the next one to three years. Pricing varies depending on the size and range of application parameters and is competitive with the latest premium fine pitch video walls.

How holograms work

Above: How holograms work

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

SolidLight Objects are considered both optically real (converging wavefront; off-screen and in free-space objects) as well as virtual (diverging wavefronts; in-screen) depending on the presented content and system configuration. In contrast to augmented reality or virtual reality hardware, you don’t have to put on any headgear.

But there’s a lot of tech here. Behind each display, there’s a computer that has lots of graphics processing units (GPUs) and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that provide the processing power for rendering the visuals. The FPGA is custom-designed, but once the company refines the tech and makes it into a custom chip, then it will be a lot less expensive and more practical for things like the home market.

What’s not a hologram

Above: Princess Leia and R2D2 in Star Wars: Rise Against the Empire.

Image Credit: Disney

Science fiction movies have given us Princess Leia, as projected by R2D2, and we can see a virtual Tupac at Coachella. But these weren’t really holograms. I talked to Karafin about this, and he went on a calm rant about the illusions around holograms.

“Real images” as defined by optical physics can be recreated by a holographic display with a massive number of viewing angles of the scene that change with the point of view and location. When a holographic display allows you to see around objects when you move your head in any direction, motion parallax is maintained—the ability to view objects closer to us as moving faster than objects that are further away.

When reflections and refractions behave correctly, your brain says, “this is real.” But to achieve this holographic realism, a holographic display must provide high-resolution scene information that changes depending on the viewing angle and location mimicking the real world, Karafin said.

Above: Jon Karafin, CEO of Light Field Lab, stands in front of the company’s patent books.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

He should know, as his company has tons of patents. I saw them stacked in the form of a bunch of books at the company’s headquarters, and Karafin posed in a picture beside them.

Everyone’s beloved Princess Leia could not have been seen via R2D2’s magical flashlight (from an optical physics standpoint that is). However, if the floor was a holographic display, the green areas show what would have been possible to see from the actors point of view.

The dream of a real hologram has given rise to a plethora of “good tries but no cigar” technologies claiming to be holographic. A majority of all things you see represented as holographic are actually just variations of other flat 2D display technologies. A real holographic object can only be seen between the viewer’s eyes and a holographic lightsource, known as the “eye-line” rule.

Science fiction can do the impossible but, unfortunately, physics cannot. All true holographic technologies require a display surface to project holographic light, otherwise the eye-line rule is violated. Anything that suggests otherwise … is just movie magic. They’re not holographic.

Above: Another vision of the future.

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

If you think you see light magically freezing in mid-air, it’s a forgery. As an example, Pepper’s Ghost is an illusion that is popular in carnivals, museums, concerts, and theater, which dates back to the mid-1800s when British scientist John Henry Pepper popularized it. Pepper’s Ghost is still going strong. It was used to “resurrect” Tupac at Coachella in 2012 and Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014, as well as dozens of other posthumous celebrities.

In those examples, the Pepper’s Ghost technique works by reflecting a 2D image off of a piece of semi-transparent film or surface. It’s also one of the roots of the term “smoke and mirrors.” But don’t get taken in. Example displays that fall into this category include: Vntana, Hologram USA, and Musion.

Stereoscopic 3D displays are another illusion. 3D movies and 3D TVs rely on glasses to join together two flat images, one for each eye with slightly different viewpoints. There’s no motion parallax and you focus incorrectly on the screen because every pixel radiates the same left or right-eye image regardless of viewing angle.

In other words, as you move about a stereoscopic display, the perceived geometry follows the viewer, resulting in distortions and painful disparities. As human beings, we are in constant motion, even when sitting still, and any lack of micro-parallax change tells the brain that what we are seeing is not real. Example of displays that fall into this category include: RealD, IMAX 3D, and many consumer 3D televisions.

The real thing

Light Field Lab

Above: Light Field Lab hopes to push hundreds of billions of pixels at us with holographic video walls.

Image Credit: Light Field Lab

All of that is to suggest that we haven’t seen anything yet. The real holographic displays will be more impressive and give you a sense that an object is solid. At least that’s what Karafin expects. We’ll see these in places like Las Vegas, which never met a display it didn’t like. And eventually they will trickle down into our homes. And maybe that will happen when other kinds of TVs just hit a wall.

Karafin wants to show you something that isn’t flat, but just pops out of the display and floats in the air. He showed me some other things that I can’t talk about yet. But they’re pretty exciting and will take the company into new markets. With luck, the pandemic will lighten and we’ll eventually start thinking about places to visit where we can see giant installations of Light Field Lab’s technology.

Maybe, sometime in the future, they’ll make the Star Trek Holodeck.

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