THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

The future of computing is holograms

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Right next to the canal that separates Brooklyn from Queens in New York, is a massive brick building that used to be a glass factory. Now it houses artists, metalworkers, and a company called Looking Glass. The latter could upend how we use computers every day.

Looking Glass today (Nov. 21) announced its HoloPlayer One, a new portable device about the size of a laptop that can display interactive, three-dimensional holograms. It costs $750 and functions by hooking up to a decently powered laptop. Founder Shawn Frayne told Quartz that it’s a device for developers interested in creating programs using an entirely new way of computing. But in the next few years, it could be the way we all choose to interact with computers.

Right now, the only simple way to view and interact with 3D objects is to put on some bulky virtual reality headset and flail around with some awkward controllers. While this might be an acceptable experience some of the time—like playing a video game after work, or watching a 3D movie on the weekend—it’s not what we want to do all the time, Frayne said. It’s pretty isolating to sit or stand in a room on your own, interacting with a computer program.

It looks like there's nothing there.
It looks like there’s nothing there. (Looking Glass)

New augmented-reality headsets coming onto the market will allow wearers to interact with 3D content overlaid on the real world (instead of the virtual), but you still have to put something on your face to have the experience.

Frayne thinks computing should be as frictionless as possible. We accepted desktop computers into our lives because their basic concept—staring at a box to glean information—mimicked the televisions that had been in our lives for years. Then we added the mouse, and created programs to interact with these machines. Eventually, we created touch screens that mimic how we experience physical objects.

The HoloPlayer One, and other holographic systems Looking Glass is working on, have a similar conceit to what’s come before them: They’re essentially boxes that you sit in front of —it’s just that the content is now floating in three dimensions directly in front of you. You can experience the same level of interactivity as a VR or AR headset, without having to put anything on your face.

Looking Glass
Slicing through the layers of a model of a beating heart. (Looking Glass)

Frayne, who splits his time between the company’s Brooklyn and Hong Kong offices, showed me some simple programs. One was a life-size model of a beating human heart. It was created from CT scans, and put together in 3D modeling software. I could spin the heart around from all angles, and if I waved my finger through the object, I could see the layers inside the heart. It’s not difficult to see how useful this could be for surgeons preparing for an operation, where instead of looking at a 3D model on a 2D screen, a team of doctors could gather around a holo-computer and practice the operation they were about to undertake on a lifelike model.

I was also shown demonstrations of a few games. One was like a cross between Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Super Mario, where a skateboarding character zoomed around three-dimensional worlds performing tricks. The 3D nature of the game meant the player could spin the entire world around on any axis to get a better look at the jump they were about to go over.

Looking Glass
Drawing in 3D on the HoloPlayer One—what you see, compared to what it looks like to everyone else. (Looking Glass)

Another simple program allowed me to paint with my finger in 3D—something I’ve really enjoyed doing in VR in the past, even though I’m a terrible painter and you look ridiculous doing it in public with a headset strapped on. There was another one that allowed me to use my finger to model spinning clay—it wasn’t quite like that scene from Ghost, but it was still pretty other-worldly.

Looking Glass
Modeling digital clay in 3D. (Looking Glass)

The main stumbling block of the Looking Glass systems is their resolution. The 3D images are often blocky or fuzzy. But the concept is there, and Frayne says the systems will get better. He originally thought it would take him and his company a decade to get to the stage they’re at now, but they managed to build the HoloPlayer One in three years.

We’re not quite at the stage of the holograms of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars film—something Frayne has dreamt of building his entire life—but this system is definitely a step in that direction. The 2D images in this story don’t do the system justice—unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to capture a 3D object with a camera that takes 2D photos. Being able to move around and play with 3D objects right in front of my face as easily as I would use an iPad as sort of magical.

Looking Glass
Sharing a design from a regular computer with a colleague on the HoloPlayer One. (Looking Glass)

There’s no guarantee that Looking Glass will be the company to usher in the next generation of computing standards, and if history tells us anything, it probably won’t be.

But if other companies figure out that playing with something in 3D is a lot more fun, easy, and simple when you don’t have to strap a VR headset to your face, then perhaps we can be saved from a future dystopia where we’re all strapped in to these machines for the better part of every day because Facebook demands it to be so.

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