As the proliferation of MJ-Hologram skeptics suggests, the anxiety surrounding holograms has to do with veracity. When Luke sees holographic Leia for the first time, she is small, even-doll like—a tiny projection of a damsel in distress who has been placed onto an actual pedestal. She is also obviously a projection: The light emanates from the droid, and the image glitches repeatedly, breaking up into a field of visual static. And yet for Luke and Obi-Wan, there is no doubt that Leia is real, and in need of saving.
The reaction shots at the Billboard awards, however, showed awed and confused attendees trying to fathom what they were seeing. In the real world, holograms still abut the uncanny valley, displaying a body that is there and not there, alive and dead. Something about it doesn’t quite compute.
A hologram is, after all, an illusion. Holograms are often offered as Exhibit A for a variety of “truther” groups looking to reveal hidden realities in our world. YouTube hosts a bounty of videos arguing that the military is hiding evidence of UFOs and stealth fighters with the aid of holograms, that the planes that flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11 were holograms, and that the moon—yes, even the moon—is a hologram. Of course, the evidentiary status of low-resolution internet video goes unquestioned by these uploaders, while the hologram is understood as moving image technology subject to limitless manipulation.
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Since its development in the early 1960s, the hologram has been heralded as the future of the moving image. As recently as 2011, at the premiere of his film Hugo, the director Martin Scorsese said, “If everything moves along and there’s no major catastrophe, we’re headed towards holograms.” Holographic movies are still a ways off, however. A team at the University of Arizona has produced a capture-and-display technology using 16 cameras and a transparent screen that can play a holographic image that changes every two seconds. Slower than silent-film speed of 16 frames per second, the 3-D moving holograph still straddles the static and moving image. The aim of holographic movies appears to be the erasure of a mediating screen, thereby providing a completely enveloping entertainment experience in which the illusion cannot be easily separated from reality.
As with virtual-reality technologies, a lot of the funding for holographic applications has come from the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA funded the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display, an interactive 360-degree 3-D holographic image developed by Zebra Imaging. The display does not require 3-D glasses, and can be viewed and manipulated by up to 20 people at once, as well as expand to six feet across and a foot deep, granting military personnel an incredible amount of detail with which to plan assaults, rescues, and relief efforts within an urban setting. The promise of the hologram is that by removing mediating interfaces, be it glasses or screens, viewers (or trainees, or soldiers) will experience simulated environments more directly. The end result would resemble something close to the idea expressed by French film theorist André Bazin in his 1946 essay “The Myth of Total Cinema.” Bazin argued that cinema’s goal—even before it had been invented as a technology—has always been the complete replication of reality.