Technology

Star Trek-like device beams life-sized holograms

The Globe and Mail

Online video conferencing tools such as Skype have revolutionized the way job interviews are conducted from afar. But what if technology enabled you to appear in an office, in front of a prospective employer, even when you’re half a world away?

A Queen’s University researcher has created a device that transmits life-sized 3-D holograms, allowing people in different locations to video conference while virtually standing in front of each other. “Why Skype when you can talk to a life-sized 3-D holographic image of another person?” said professor Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s.

The technology developed by Dr. Vertegaal and researchers at the Queen’s Human Media Lab is called TeleHuman, and it looks like something from the Star Trek holodeck.

Two people stand in front of their own life-sized, white cylindrical pods and talk to 3-D hologram-like images of each other. Cameras capture and track 3-D video and convert it into the life-sized image. Since the 3-D video image is visible 360 degrees around the pod, a person can walk around it and see the other person’s side or back.

While the technology sounds futuristic, it’s not as complicated as you might expect. Dr. Vertegaal and his team used mostly existing hardware – including a 3-D projector, a 1.8-metre-tall translucent acrylic cylinder, and a convex mirror.

Dr. Vertegaal said he had the idea about 10 years ago but the technology to do it wasn't available yet. Then last summer he and his team began to construct the device and were able to build it in about six months. There are already companies interested in the technology so he expects to commercialize it.

"It would be really cool to do a videoconferencing display like this," Dr. Vertegaal said in an interview from San Francisco. "We think of this as a general purpose tool like Skype, but the problem with Skype is that it's flat," and it doesn't give you the ability to see a person in three dimensions, he said.

If you're judging a person as a candidate for a job "then you need a lot more than what videoconferencing can give today," he added.

The device could also be used for medical imaging and by doctors who work remotely, or for instruction in creative fields such as dance, music or yoga, he said.

"There's tons of applications," he added.

The Queen’s researchers also used the technology to create BodiPod, which is an interactive 3-D anatomy model of the human body. With certain hand gestures or voice commands you can peel off layers of tissue to reveal deeper parts of the hologram’s anatomy, such as muscles, organs and bones. Saying “show brain” or “show heart” gets the program to zoom into a 3-D model of that part of the body.

Dr. Vertegaal is unveiling the technology next week at CHI 2012, a major international conference on human-computer interaction, taking place in Austin, Tex.