In April of last year, a nighttime rally was organized on the steps of the Spanish parliament to protest a new law that severely curtailed a number of civil liberties. Euphemistically named the “Citizen Safety Law,” the new regulations prohibited, among other things, public assembly near government buildings. Thousands of demonstrators shouted slogans and waved placards. Arrests were surely imminent.

None were made, however, because no one was really there—the protest was a holographic projection, a virtual end-around of repressive authority. In a video posted online, a spokeswoman for the movement prophesied: “Ultimately, if you are a person, you won’t be allowed to express yourself freely. You will only be able to do it if you are a hologram.”

The Madrid protest received little media attention, but higher-profile holograms had already begun populating newsfeeds. Less than a year earlier, India’s general election—the largest voting event in history—was decided. The nation’s new prime minister, Narenda Modi, ran an “omnipresent” campaign that included appearances in over 1,400 locations as a hologram. In the words of one Bloomberg Businessweek headline, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate “went full Tupac,” a reference to the 3-D digital reappearance of the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur at the 2012 Coachella music festival. Following shortly on the heels of Modi’s victory, Michael Jackson posthumously moonwalked at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, a holographic “performance” that was met with equal parts fascination and disgust.

Simultaneously here and gone, holograms are stand-ins for all things virtual, harbingers of a “mixed reality” in which the real and the simulated have been integrated seamlessly. Highly hyped future products such as Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens hope to holographically enhance ordinary life, promising a revolution in communication, gaming, home improvement, engineering, design, and art making—an “internet of experiences” that will displace the current information-dependent culture. In reality, however, holograms have mostly been gaudy stunts that reveal people's anxiety about technological presence.

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Most people are already quite familiar with holograms, at least as cinema and television have represented them. Scenes such as R2D2’s playback of Leia’s plea for Obi-Wan’s help in Star Wars, or Worf assuming the role of a Klingon sheriff on Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Tony Stark “hijacking the hippocampus” to recall traumatic memories in Captain America: Civil War all exemplify an imagined future in which bodies are beamed through space and time.

These are the holograms people want, anyway. Holographic reality is emphatically more prosaic: kaleidoscopic birds on credit cards to protect from fraud; Bob the Builder stickers for children; kitschy cases wrapped around iPhones. Other recent holographic creations are marked by gimmickry, such as the limited-edition vinyl release of Jack White’s Lazaretto, which features a hologram of a winged angel that is brought to life as the record spins. Soon, chocolate lovers will chomp on treats stamped with holographic geometric abstractions, courtesy of the Swiss company Morphotonix.

So far, the best real-world instantiations of hologram dreams are techno-fetish versions of Madame Tussauds’ waxworks: a diamond-encrusted holographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on display in a London jewelry store; a hologram of author Mario Vargas Llosa introducing visitors to his childhood home/museum in Arequipa, Peru; holographic Jimmy Kimmel monologuing simultaneously in Los Angeles and Nashville; and so on.

Most of the technologies calling themselves “holographic” do not produce actual holograms—including the specters of Vargas Llosa, Kimmel, Modi, Tupac, and MJ, which are created via computer-generated images and high-definition video projection. A real hologram is an image that records the diffraction of laser light directed at an object. There are many types of holograms. Rainbow holograms, like the one on your Visa card, can be seen under normal light. Others beam a laser through the encoded hologram and project the three-dimensional image onto a screen. Some holographic techniques are capable of recording objects as they rotate, which allows for the holographic image to appear to move, depending on the angle and position of the viewer.

The Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor first patented holographic technology in 1947, a discovery that came as an accidental outgrowth of his research into electronic microscopy. As the science historian Sean Johnson describes in Holographic Visons: A History of New Science, the development of the laser in 1960 greatly improved the capabilities of holography, and in 1962, two separate research groups produced the first optical holograms. The engineer Yuri Denisyuk developed one technology in the Soviet Union, while Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks, engineers affiliated with the University of Michigan, independently arrived at an extension of Gabor’s experiments, eventually allowing for the 3-D imaging that is ubiquitous on credit cards and driver’s licenses today.

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The dream of the hologram, however, is older than its invention. It derives from parlor tricks, phantasmagoria, and vaudeville.

The company responsible for the “resurrection” of Tupac, as they describe it, is Hologram USA. Like most of the companies that claim to make holograms, Hologram USA uses CGI (Computer-generated Imagery)—not laser interference patterns—to conjure three-dimensional bodies in space. This is an update of a 19th-century entertainment called Pepper’s Ghost. Named for British scientist John Henry Pepper, the technique involves a split room and a mirror or reflected surface tilted at a 45-degree angle, so that an apparition from one part of the room seemingly manifests out of thin air in the other. The patent Hologram USA holds replaces the mirror with a thin Mylar foil.

Whether a hologram is really a hologram, however, may not be as important as what the idea of the hologram represents. Take the case of the Michael Jackson “hologram,” produced by six synchronized ultra-HD projectors displaying the labors of 35 animators who worked for 30 weeks to mimic the physical body and movement of the celebrity. Pulse Entertainment, which created the Jackson illusion (its directors were careful to point out that it was not a hologram), refers to their reanimated celebrities as “virtual humans.” By designing the image to emulate MJ’s facial expressions, replicate his dance moves, and to speak in his voice, Pulse exhibits a mode of ventriloquism in which the puppeteers remain unseen.

Even at the time, Jackson’s reappearance prompted questions about who the dummy really was. His face was rounder and whiter than it appeared in 1991—the era the Jackson estate chose for the performance.  The Gloved One’s visage was strange enough to cause online conspiracy theorists to claim that the hologram hadn’t been completed in time. What viewers had really seen, as the theory goes, was a holographic “mask” projected on a live body, that of Christopher Gaspar, the “official” Michael Jackson impersonator of his estate (yes, that is a thing). Other commenters proposed that the hologram was actually a projection of an MJ impersonator, whose moves were surely easier to capture.

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.

Bodily experience with a holographic performer is a trope often repeated by its boosters. Jonathan Warren, chairman of the Liberace Foundation, told The Guardian that the long-dead-yet-elaborately-sequined pianist’s 2015 holographic concert tour would make attendees “feel the warmth from his heart, the sparkle of his eye and the pure lightning from his fingertips.” It should also come as no surprise that many augmented- and virtual reality applications are pornographic.

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With its emphasis on the technologically reconstituted body, the hologram also conjures future access to an imagined, post-human afterlife. In 2007, Microsoft sought to patent “immortal computing,” a condition describing both the data storage and holographic interface of a deceased individual, who would be able to communicate with friends and family well after their corporeal death.

The hologram’s play on presence and absence might also provide a key to understanding the very fabric of existence. In 1997, the Argentine physicist Juan M. Maldacena put forth the idea that the universe itself operates as a kind of holographic projection. In this scenario, space-time is emergent, rather than fundamental—a result of lived experience in three dimensions of the quantum information that may be encoded in two. In Illinois, scientists at Fermilab, the government’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory, designed the holometer, “a new kind of instrument designed to study the quantum character of space itself.” The holometer is intended to identify whether space remains still, or is in fact made up of  “holographic noise” that is always moving, however minutely. Matter itself might be holographic—in a perpetual state of simultaneous existence and nonexistence. It’s an ironic turn for a technology associated with fakes and forgeries.

Mixed reality—the hologram’s next frontier—depends on making this duality visible in daily life. Magic Leap and HoloLens, which superimpose computer-generated imagery atop the world via special glasses, hope that people will no longer make any distinction between real and simulated reality. The problem that remains unaddressed, however, is that most people still feel that they have physical bodies. Those bodies still get hungry, they still get tired, they still want to have sex, and they still get shot in the street. As proven by the protest in Madrid, a hologram can’t get arrested—at least for now. Governments aren’t yet worried about virtual uprisings.

That isn’t to say that governments are ignoring holograms altogether, though. One of the earliest adopters of the HoloLens, aside from eager app developers, has been the Israeli army. Just this week a spokesperson said they were looking to adapt the devices “as quickly as possible to military use.” Holograms, it seems, might yet get real.


This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.