Volumetric futures

The new volumetric display by Looking Glass has been getting decidedly mixed press. The device -appropriately called - Volume - has been given some exposure at selected tech shows and other exhibition spaces. The device is available for pre-order at $1000 per unit, which is no small commitment for a project envisaged as "affordable" by the developers.

We are of course spoilt by the economies of mass production these days, and are used to going even cheaper via the likes of Ebay and Gumtree. Is the price really that bad for an initial, relatively low production run by a small startup company breaking in a new technology? Probably not, all things considered, especially when other volumetric displays can cost 100 times the price.

Exploring the World of 3D

Looking glass have entered into the 3D display arena before; both with layer-printed images trapped in transparent blocks and with the L3D Cube; a 3D matrix of LEDs in various sizes capable of displaying audio-responsive, volumetric patterns. Their latest device represents a development of their previous endeavours and all have in common the principle of points of light/colour hanging in layers of 3D space.

In contrast with the led display of their L3D Cube, images on the Volume are derived from 1080p frames of motion (approx. 2,000,000 pixels), each encoded for 10 layers of depth. The images are displayed via projection (a pico projector) into a transparent plastic block whose interior structure is configured as 10 layered screens configured (in essence) as sheets of voxels (3D pixels) although the voxels don’t physically exist. Instead, points of light are suspended within a volume to giver a similar effect. It's somewhat misleading to think of Volume in terms of a conventional 1080p true-colour image however; -that certainly isn't what you are viewing. The source frame has to contain image data for three dimensions, not two; so the trade-off is image resolution versus 3D quality. More layers equates to better depth but less image quality. There’s only 2,000,000 pixels to go around and Looking glass have found a viable compromise.

Viewing the frames separately reveals 10 vertically stacked strips on each "raw" image, each representing a layer of depth, front-to-back. Once projected up into the viewing block, the image pixels are optically channeled to their correct screen layers and “voxels”, creating the viewable 3D effect. This novel display process has been christened “light folding” by the inventors and provides results are (apparently) convincing enough to maintain their integrity as the viewer walks around them, although herein lies a problem.

Forever Experimenting

As most of us don’t have access to the Volume directly (unless you find one at a show) and the majority still don’t use a 3D headset (even Google Cardboard), most will be viewing the results on 2D screens; a medium that obviously can’t do the effect justice. Ultimately what we witness in these demos and review videos are translucent moving images lacking clarity and resolution, suspend in an environment that looks similar to a small fish tank filled with water. You can see the gentle ‘fog’ and tint of the display block itself. It may also be quite telling that the demo footage appears to have been filmed in decidedly low-light environments. I haven’t seen the physical device in action, so no condemnation here; but it’s apparent that you really “have to be there” to understand. It’s all about the issue of presence; compressed web video just won’t do it.

Assessing the Volume on similar terms to an off-the-shelf $1000 TV would be equally unfair. The principle is intriguing and is a proof of concept that tantalises impressive results that are to come. Perhaps it will take 5 years, perhaps 10 or more, before the concept matures, in the meantime; experimentalist early adopters with some money to burn may wish to take a punt; in much the same way that the early-adopter 3D printer crowd did. (It may even appeal to some of the the same folks). As Looking Glass CTO and co-founder Alex Hornstein mentioned on Digital Trends:

“Anyone who wants to create in 3D can now do so and see their creation come to life in Volume instantly.”

Looking Glass are certainly encouraging user experimentation and ease of use; some demo footage was shot on an iPhone with a Kinect-like 3D scanner attachment and a custom app. 3D CG can be created for the Volume display field via Unity, a dev kit is available and interactive art packages are in development. Fancy some holographic 3D sculpting or painting? -It’s happening.

Leap Motion handles the appealing, interactive side of things, allowing users to control virtual hands (for example) that permit interaction with on-screen (in-screen?) objects for games, art or whatever application a competent programmer can devise. For now, we’re perhaps seeing the holographic equivalent of John Logie Baird’s early TV experiments, and we all know how that worked out.