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Will holograms be the next innovation in the post-pandemic workplace?

Start-ups are introducing next-generation virtual meeting software

ARHT Media brought holographic speakers from Australia, Greece and Germany together on one stage. (ARHT Media/Imverse)

It’s a pressing question that has yet to be answered: Once the pandemic passes, what will the return to work look like for millions of Americans?

Some tech companies have said people can continue to work from home indefinitely. Surveys suggest that most others are contemplating hybrid workspaces where staffers rotate between working remotely and coming into the office. The possible post-coronavirus situation has some companies envisioning a future in which people can collaborate in more interactive and engaging ways, whether they’re on-site or at home. One novel approach is to use 3-D holograms.

Last month, Canada-based ARHT Media launched HoloPod, a 3-D display system that beams presenters into meetings and conferences they otherwise might not be able to attend. That same month, the 3-D graphics company Imverse was recognized at the global tech conference CES for software that enables hologram collaboration within virtual meeting rooms. Last year, Spatial enabled holographic-style virtual meetings on Oculus Quest.

Others are racing to develop similar Web conferencing capabilities under the notion that holograms are more engaging to work with than tiles of faces on a computer screen. On the fringe for years, workplace holograms would give employees the ability to read body language and other physical reactions in cyberspace. The digital illusions might also foster greater collaboration and communication among colleagues unable to interact in the real world.

“As you look to that hybrid model, companies are going to have to innovate around that interplay between the remote employee experience and in-office employee experience,” said Lisa Walker, the vice president of brand at Fuze, a teleconferencing service. “The technologies that can solve for that are going to pop.”

A January workplace survey by PWC found that most executives and employees expect a hybrid workplace to kick off in the second quarter of this year. A separate survey by the National Association for Business Economics found that only 11 percent of the employees are expected to return to their pre-pandemic working arrangements. Corporate travel is expected to remain slashed.

Holograms might not be the next big thing, but start-ups in the 3-D space are positioning their offerings just in case.

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The three-dimensional light projections have primarily been seen re-creating musicians onstage in recent years. Companies have wanted to bring them into homes, but the projection hardware is still too expensive for most people to afford. Companies, on the other hand, have larger budgets. And now software advancements are unlocking ways to use laptops, computers and smartphones to engage with and stream holograms emitted elsewhere.

In December, ARHT media showed what a hologram-enabled conference could look like as it beamed an executive from Los Angeles to Singapore to speak at an innovation summit. The event brought together a “small group” of attendees and was broadcast live to a larger audience online.

Traditionally, setting up high-definition holograms requires a team of projection technicians. However, ARHT’s HoloPod was designed to be a quick-setup, plug-and-play system that’s simpler to deploy.

On the remote side, a presenter would stand in front of a green screen, looking at a shot of the audience on a monitor. Meanwhile, cameras capture the speaker from all angles. At the worksite, someone could roll the HoloPod out of a closet, turn on a computer and connect to a live stream.

ARHT’s software strings it all together and will enable presenters to respond in almost real time. People would then see the illusion of the presenter projected onto a reflective mesh.

In video demonstrations, the $20,000 suite of hologram technology lacks some clarity. You can look at it and tell it’s not a real person.

Still, the company enables people to engage with life-size, three-dimensional representations of people.

“When you see traditional streaming services like Zoom, it’s typically just a headshot. You’re missing 50 percent of their body language,” said Larry T. O’Reilly, CEO of ARHT Media. “However, when you see somebody in a live hologram, and they appear to be 3-D without the need of 3-D glasses, your brain is telling you they’re in the room.”

Another company is working to bring holograms closer to living rooms without all the bulky hardware.

The 3-D imaging company Imverse developed software to remotely generate holograms using the latest smartphones or inexpensive depth cameras. The idea is to eventually replace 2-D video calls with 3-D virtual conversations.

“Imagine being able to insert yourself into the same virtual spaces with your colleagues. You can interact with or collaborate around virtual objects and 3-D whiteboards,” said Ivo Petrov, executive chairman at Imverse.

The start-up’s software reads information from depth cameras and converts the images into volumetric pixels that can produce holograms in real time. Imverse focuses on the software, while big tech companies have to decide how to deploy it; some have already expressed interest, according to Javier Bello, the company’s CEO.

The digital clones could surface in a variety of ways.

If they’re using a smartphone camera, you could video-chat with a colleague on a computer and use your mouse to zoom in or pan around their virtual room. If you’re both wearing VR headsets, you could beam yourselves into a virtual office or bring them into your living room to collaborate.

It would take a trio of cameras to enable 360-degree virtual views of your whole body, while eight cameras would enable your hologram to emit from TVs such as Sony’s latest $5,000 spatial reality display.

Imverse says it will launch its collaboration service later in 2021.