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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Five reasons why we won't see IBM's holographic display in five years - video

By Nick Flaherty

IBM has released its prediction of five key technologies for the next five years, and on the whole they are pretty sound: fuel cell batteries are here and making headway in a number of markets, the smart grid will take existing technologies and apply them to wide area power systems, sensors will be everywhere (absolutely!) and smart algorithms can take the pain out of commuting - so far, so good. But the one that IBM has chosen to headline is holographic phone calls (and mobile ones at that).

IBM says:
In the next five years, 3-D interfaces – like those in the movies – will let you interact with 3-D holograms of your friends in real time. Movies and TVs are already moving to 3-D, and as 3-D and holographic cameras get more sophisticated and miniaturized to fit into cell phones, you will be able to interact with photos, browse the Web and chat with your friends in entirely new ways.

Scientists are working to improve video chat to become holography chat - or "3-D telepresence." The technique uses light beams scattered from objects and reconstructs a picture of that object, a similar technique to the one human eyes use to visualize our surroundings.

This is nonsense for a number of reasons:

  1. Photonics doesn't scale. We haven't been able to make photonics scale like silicon - researchers have been trying for 20 years to make the photonic computer, and are still trying. It will take more than 5 years to make commercial, large scale photonic technology small enough for the home, let alone the mobile
  2. Photonics won't be cheap enough. As it doesn't scale, it's also going to be hard to make it cheap enough. There are LED projectors now but there's some large steps to take to make this a consumer product
  3. It's too power hungry for mobile. And not low cost enough. Or small enough. It won't make the home, let alone the mobile.
  4. Video calling is only just taking off. It has taken 20 years for the idea of 2D video calling to take off. A lack of standards and a social resistance is only just being overcome with Skype in the office (not in the living room even now) and Facetime on the Apple 4. There is still a lot of resistance to installing a projector in the home that will take a lot to overcome. 
  5. It's the face, stupid. Apple is driving video calling through the face - being able to see the other person's expression. That's not what the 3D system provides. 
That's not to say it won't be incredibly useful, just not in the home. The key is that the engineers at IBM Research are working on new ways to visualize 3-D data, working on technology that would allow engineers to step inside designs of everything from buildings to software programs, running simulations of how diseases spread across interactive 3-D globes, and visualizing trends happening around the world on Twitter – all in real time and with little to no distortion. 
This is where the technology will take off, where size, cost and power are less important than visualising large amounts of data. From there it make its way into the home office with new projectors, but this will take more than five years to happen.

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