Helen Roxburgh
May 25, 2017

Holograms make virtual mark on the world stage

The technological equivalent of astral projection is finally here, allowing interaction with audiences and consumers across time and space—and even from beyond the grave.

Hello Genie: Line has invested in Gatebox’s virtual PA
Hello Genie: Line has invested in Gatebox’s virtual PA

This March, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking gave his first talk to a Hong Kong audience in over a decade, discussing the human mind, societal trends and education. But rather than having to fly halfway round the world to speak at the Hong Kong Science Park, Professor Hawking was beamed in by hologram, delivering the talk from his office in Cambridge, in the UK.

The process involved uses technology called HumaGrams, which captures the content live at source, transmits it via the internet, and then projects it at the display point, with a live feed of the audience being sent back to the speaker to allow for two-way interaction.

“As we developed the technology, it became apparent that the real value was bringing live talent from one area to another,” says Lincoln Cheung, manager for strategy and operations at ARHT Media, the company behind HumaGrams technology. “Holograms are so sexy and create so much interest because it is the ultimate augmented reality experience. You don’t need goggles, you don’t need glasses, you can really see and interact with this person.”

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking appeared in Hong Kong, beamed directly from his office in Cambridge.

Asian audiences have been enthusiastic adopters of virtual reality and 3D technology, and analysts at Nomura forecast that producers will sell 40 million VR headsets a year in Asia by 2020. Hologram technology is in many ways the logical extension of this—VR without the headset. And although the technology has yet to be rolled out in many large-scale campaigns, some major global brands have already been experimenting with holograms in their marketing and advertising.

In 2016, KitKat Japan launched a hologram campaign aimed at students, with special packaging that turned into a pyramid and projected a hologram of the boy band DSH singing a good luck song. The campaign was launched during exam time, building on the idea of posting a KitKat to those studying for exams: the brand’s Japanese name sounds similar to ‘kitto katsu’, which means ‘surely win’.

Nike ran one of the first hologram campaigns using Holocube technology in 2013 in Amsterdam, in which customers could see a 3D projection of a Nike shoe from different angles as if they were holding it and turning it round in their own hands. Another early campaign was by Starbucks Hong Kong, which launched the ‘Twinkle surprise’ project in 2014. Customers who sent a Christmas greetings video through the Starbucks app received a coupon for a ‘kaleidobox’, which allowed them to view the video as a hologram.

Virtual rewards: Students in Japan received some holographic encouragement for their revision, thanks to Kit-Kat

“Having a hologram as the basis of the campaign really drove Starbucks customers to use the app and buy a drink,” says Avis Wong, executive creative director of Mirium Hong Kong, the agency that worked on the campaign. “They loved the uniqueness of a personalised holographic video and it showed in the results, as it registered a 20 percent increase in drinks redemption compared to any other Starbucks campaign in Hong Kong, while the app experienced a 300 percent increase
in downloads.”

Most hologram activity to date, however, has been based around events. Famous examples include the Tupac Shakur holographic performance at the Coachella Music Festival in 2012, which took roughly six months to create, and the Michael Jackson hologram used at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

“There is definitely a lot of potential for hologram technology to be used in the future for many different fields,” says Brandon Choi, chief operations officer at Hong Kong-based Fab Asia, which uses 3D holographic stage and projection systems at events including trade shows, retail events and nightclubs. “Twenty years down the line, there will be no need for a big bulky VR headset to put over your head, everything will be projected into holograms. Marketing, retail—both online and point-of-sales—real estate, and many more sectors stand to benefit if properly implemented.”

A report on the holographic display market from Transparency Market Research says it has witnessed particularly high growth in India and China, which it expects to help the market gain pace in the rest of Asia-Pacific. According to TMR, the use of holographic displays in medical imaging is one of the chief drivers of the market, but after medical uses it sees a rising demand for holographic projections at events, fashion shows, conferences, product launch ceremonies and product marketing events, and predicts strong growth until 2024.

“For brands, the benefits of using hologram technology is that it creates a unique and interactive experience for the user, as it gets the user engaged,” says Alvin Foo, head of Airwave China, the mobile marketing division of Omnicom Media Group. “More than double the users are likely to read and interact with hologram ads over traditional materials—3D ads improve the brand recall factor.”

The ‘kaleidobox’ successfully ramped up sales and downloads of Starbucks’ app

The downsides of hologram technology include startlingly high costs, which have stopped the technology from being rolled out too enthusiastically, especially across developing nations. Even small-size projections usually come with a very high price tag: the Holocube technology used by Nike reportedly cost around US$10,000 for a 10-inch hologram version.

“The high cost of assembling holographic display devices are playing a sort of spoilsport,” the TMR report warns. “The process involves manufacturing and fabrication of new technologies, which might prove cost-intensive for smaller companies. Furthermore, the pricing might seem expensive for consumers across underdeveloped nations, limiting the market’s growth.”

ARHT’s Cheung admits that the technology still faces an uphill struggle to demonstrate its value. “A lot of the cost is around the projection, because the hologram is still essentially a projection, and they need high-end projectors that are very bright and powerful,” he says. “It’s also a perception of value to the public. A key question we’re asking is whether holographic is as good as live; if we got Justin Timberlake to do a hologram show in Shanghai, would people pay the same price for a ticket as if he were here in flesh and blood? 

“Right now, people have this concept that holograms are not worth as much as live because they are not physically occupying the space in front of you, and we want to create the notion that holographic is as good as real.”

Aside from good imaging, holograms’ success will also rely on a fast, reliable internet connection, as well as on a change in attitude from consumers.

“We are still really at an early stage for both hologram and VR advertising,” says Foo. “A lot of effort and money is going into VR, but with limitations in content and adoption, it will still take a few years before we see mass advertising in this space.”

Even with these challenges, experts predict that the demand for hologram technology is nonetheless set to increase, particularly among tech-hungry Asian audiences.

“I feel that holograms are ideal for brands looking to target millennials and digital-savvy audiences,” says Wong. “The versatility of holograms also make them perfect solutions for a range of industries and brands. Whether you’re a young fashion brand, in the entertainment sector or from the automotive industry, holograms provide a stimulating way to engage with customers. Holograms also offer great adaptability and scalability.”

The messaging app Line has already bought a controlling stake in Gatebox, the Japanese startup behind a holographic anime bot designed as virtual personal assistant—a home robot in the form of a projected 3D character living inside a glass projection tube. The character can partake in conversations and be hooked up to your home network, allowing it to automate certain tasks around your home. It might sound like something out of Star Trek, but the first ‘character’ is set to launch in December.

The technology giant Microsoft is also expanding in this area in Asia, with plans to launch its holographic computer headset, HoloLens, in China this year. These are ‘mixed reality’ goggles that let the user interact with the world around them. A Microsoft spokesperson describes the goggles as “the world’s first self-contained holographic computer”, which allows users to pin holograms in their physical environment. The company already has a number of corporate partnerships in different sectors that use the technology (see boxout).

Microsoft fires up the HoloLens

Already available in countries including Australia, Japan and New Zealand, Microsoft is planning to bring the goggles to China in 2017.

The company has already been working with a number of corporate clients and brands; scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are going to use the technology in their research, exploring Mars by using holograms as if they themselves are walking on the surface of the planet. Construction firm Trimble is using the technology to create 3D models of projects, while home improvement store Lowe’s has been using the glasses to let customers create holograms of the projected changes to their home. Other brands that have used the technology in their campaigns and research include Volvo, Autodesk Fusion 360 and engineers thyssenkrupp.

HoloLens is not cheap, however; a pair of goggles is currently marketed at a heady US$3,000 for a pair, and $5,000 for a corporate suite, although it’s not yet known what the cost in China will be. Microsoft is reportedly delaying development on a cheaper and more advanced version of the HoloLens until 2019.

ARHT’s future plans, along with more hologram events—including a series in which the speakers are projected in several different locations simultaneously—include developing its hologram technology towards a service role.

“What we are also working on is marrying the technology between artificial intelligence chatbots and holograms,” says Cheung. “So essentially creating virtual receptionists, shopkeepers or tour guides, without a corporeal body, but a hologram of a person, and a pre-programmed brain that can help with different queries.

“With the technology you can also tell what demographic customers fall into; are they male or female, are they standing in front of the sensor single or with kids? A lot of data can be created from this technology about who you are and what kind of queries you might have, and what offers or deals might be relevant. This technology is really not that far away.”

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