Reflections on the viability of Next Generation Collaboration, & Briefings using holograms
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C Clarke’s third law of prediction
It’s unusual for Telstra’s Enterprise & Government group to singularly capture the attention of the nation about the possibilities of technology. Yet that’s what happened when we featured a live hologram projection as part of our regular executive briefings across six capital cities.
The future of collaboration and remote meetings is clearly here and now; but you may want to weigh up practicalities with the overall impact on the audience. This blog will outline what we did and how we did it.
What we did:
In front of each audience a life sized, high definition image of Dr Hugh Bradlow, Telstra’s Chief Technology Officer, would “beam in”, as though he was on stage interacting with our opening keynote speaker, David Thodey, Group Managing Director of Telstra Enterprise & Government.
Hugh would then go on to present his PowerPoint presentation even though he was thousands of kilometres away in our purpose built studio in Melbourne.
The media coverage was unprecedented, the story ran on the nightly news of all the major TV networks. It was picked up by newspapers in Poland, UK, India, Korea, and the US; and fiercely discussed on blog sites across the world. It was perhaps the first time that my mum could actually understand what I did at work.
The effect worked so well we repeated it one more time with our sister organisation TelstraClear in New Zealand, allowing an audience in Auckland to have a live session from TV celebrity Rove McManus, “beaming out” of our hologram studio in Melbourne.
Many months later it’s is quite flattering that customers visiting Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centres still clearly recall these briefings, and many have enquired about possibilities of using a similar approach for their events.
This was all part of an ongoing dialogue with our customers about how the evolution of networks, devices and applications, are enabling new levels of productivity through the delivery of much richer experiences, collaboration, and interactions between people.
One the best examples of this new style of working is Telepresence which combines Telstra’s Next IP broadband network, high definition video conferencing equipment, and an array of audio visual equipment that gives the appearance that someone is present at a another location. Its one of the most heavily utilised rooms in Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centre, and it never fails to impress people visiting the centre for briefings.
How we did it:
To achieve a live hologram affect like in Auckland for example, all we had to do was repurpose the technologies and services that makes up a Telepresence experience, and change the way the image is captured and projected at both ends. The key to this was moving from the usual “head and shoulders” view of Telepresence and going to a full frontal view of the presenter.
That may sound quite simple, whereas a regular Telepresence session takes place at the press of a button, for each hologram session there was a dedicated team of 11 people working behind the scenes, co-ordinating the staging, projection, lighting, video mixing, and network performance. That doesn’t include the team that also built the significant stage environment at both ends.
In front of the audience the actual holographic effect was achieved with a Musion Eyeliner video projection screen; a giant purpose built plastic foil that stretches across the entire stage. For each session it took a team of experts hours and hours to finely tune this foil / screen until it becomes invisible against the appropriate lighting. From the audience’s view it is like a giant head-up display in an upmarket car or aircraft cockpit – with Hugh’s image appearing to “float” in space.
The illusion of depth is achieved by having a very faint light wash the black curtains a few meters behind Hugh’s image. I suspect it’s the different focal lengths of looking at Hugh’s image versus the soft light behind that is tricking the eye into seeing depth.
The Musion system has been before in many theatrical events and launches; with pre-recorded content being projected across the foil.
What was different for Telstra’s briefings was the use of a live HD image coming in from across the country. A live projection had been done only once before – for a launch between India and the US. We performed these live briefings 6 times within Australia plus a session between Australia and New Zealand.
While the impact to the audience was stunning, the affect up on the stage, and back in the Melbourne Studio was far different:
- David and Hugh’s image were very carefully positioned on the stage to appear as natural as possible;
- Plasma displays were aligned, to make it easy for David to appear to be directly looking at Hugh’s face – but out of view from the audience,
- Cameras were pointed at David and the audience to help give Hugh a feel of what was happening back in the venue.
- Separate audio lines linked both sites to co-ordinate timing for the staff behind the scenes
There probably is a way to make this staging permanent and cut down on the cost and number of staff behind the scenes to make this work.
However the effect is still asymmetrical!
By that I mean the people on the stage (real and virtual) have to work much harder at the effect than those in the audience. Rehearsals and familiarisation is the key. I suspect it would be a tall order for a someone to walk into a Hologram studio cold and give a good performance. CNN came to a similar conclusion a few weeks ago.
Then again Telstra was very careful in saying this wasn’t a product for sale, more a prototype of where this kind of technology is heading; and the kinds of interaction that the next generation of networks, devices and applications can deliver.
This is quite different from what we know as Telepresence today. Here the effect is symmetrical, everyone in one room has a similar experience to everyone in the other room. Then again Telepresence is good for meetings of 1 – 20 people in each room. It will be interesting to see if a Telepresence style of solution develops for major presentations with large audiences.
A very big acknowledgement to our partners and staff who helped put this together:
- Staging Connections – who ran the entire infrastructure of the stage, lighting, projection and sound and did it time and time again around the country like clockwork
- Musion Australia – who spent hours and hours at each location painstakingly fine tuning each foil to be perfect
- Team Telstra – the Telstra staff from all across the organisation who helped make these briefings the success they were.
This blog was first published on Telstra Research Insights, 7 AUGUST 2008.
In 2012 the same holographic projection system still gains global attention: see Tupac Hologram at Coachella. Most of these are pre recorded (obviously for deceased musicians…).
HD Video and holograms generates monthly enquiries in 2012 four years after Telstra’s original events. But this combination is still theatrical rather than practical – that is the “asymmetric experience” requires some participants to be willing to “perform” for the sake of the audience. See TelePresence for a practical tool for presentations and day to day business.