In a memorable scene from sci-fi movie Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Jean Luc Picard somehow defeats a force of Borg intruders with a holographic submachine gun. It’s a doubly impressive achievement; not only is the ship's computer somehow able to render lifelike holograms, it can make them solid and palpable, something that scientists in real life are only just beginning to approach as a concept.
Star Trek’s holodeck is, of course, the ultimate in immersive gaming but it may be one of the few inventions from the show that has no possibility of ever becoming a reality – or, at least, only a very slim one. Making holograms solid is difficult; the closest science has come is using sound waves to produce acoustic radiation pressure, something that stimulates the body’s sense of touch in much the same way as the wind does. It’s a project from UK firm Ultrahaptics.
The obvious application for that kind of technology is in giving objects displayed via Virtual Reality (VR) a physical presence in the real world, allowing the player to feel a gun, a wall, or a wand in their hands. However, Microsoft’s “mixed reality” device, HoloLens, already utilizes holograms so it immediately provides a more compelling use case for “volumetric haptic shapes”, a term for the objects created by Ultrahaptics’ sound waves.
Much like VR, there’s plenty of potential for solid holograms in other industries too. For example, ex-Baltimore Ravens player Ed Reed has invested $250,000 in an emoji-based start-up, Mojiit, that is working to display holographic emojis on smartphones. Similarly, holograms are an ideal data storage medium. A hologram the size of a DVD can store 4.4m pages of information and can be destroyed and reassembled with its data intact.
Kino Mo, a London-based creator of free-standing 3D holograms, also envisions a world where holograms are fixtures in every type of business, from museums to casinos. The latter industry already has an association with the technology thanks to Catalina Island’s Avalon Casino, which employs holographic tour guides. Casinos, as one of the more technological forward fields of entertainment, are embracing VR too.
In fact, it’s already possible to play pokies in fully immersive virtual environments; the ability to play with a hologram of a slot machine on a coffee table is an almost inevitable next step. The advantage of both VR and hologram play is that the rules stay the same and advice on how to win on the machines remains valid across technological generations. For example, the blackjack game that appeared on the Atari in 1977 has much the same gameplay as modern versions.
So, to answer the question in the title: are we any closer to holographic gaming? Both Portal and Minecraft are playable on HoloLens so it’s probably fair to say that the phenomenon already exists. Much like VR and augmented reality though, it’s an exclusive and largely unproven technology that needs significant development before it can be considered comparable with the Star Trek ideal. As a new and novel way of playing though, it's definitely something worth getting excited about.
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