What are… holograms?

An explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Jeff Wise — September 12, 2023

Star Trek’s Holodeck is the ultimate sci-fi concept in entertainment, a 3D visual environment so rich and detailed that transports its users into hyper-realistic, all-enveloping settings like a 1940s detective movie, a 19th-century sailing ship, and a Sherlock Holmes novel. While this type of ability counts among the fantastical imaginary technologes featured on the show, they could one day become reality. Holograms are not yet a total immersive experience, but the technology is improving all the time, with exciting new applications soon to come. 

How it works

A hologram records a three-dimensional light field in a two-dimensional image. The principle was discovered by the physicist Dennis Gabor in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until after the invention of the laser in the 1960s that holograms became practical. These had a major drawback, though: they could only be viewed under special conditions using laser light.

An illustration by Eric Chow of two speakers engaging with a hologram in front of an audience.

Eric Chow

The a-ha moment

In 1968, Polaroid scientist Stephen A. Benton invented a version that could be viewed in natural light. These not only made it possible for more people to experience 3D imagery in everyday settings, but also gave rise to the first practical applications: as security features in credit cards and banknotes. Since holograms can’t be produced using traditional printing methods, they’re extremely difficult to forge.


RELATED: What is… human augmentation?


What it means for everyday life

Today the race is on to develop vibrant, animated holograms that can be seen from a wide range of angles, which could provide users with a 3D experience similar to that currently provided by headsets without the inconvenience of having to strap on gear. The ability to swipe and grab images out of the air à la Minority Report could be useful in a wide range of applications, such as helping doctors visualize 3D MRI and CT scan data in order to arrive at faster, more accurate diagnoses.

 How it might change the world

Holograms still require laser light to produce — but researchers are now studying techniques that will allow them to be produced using white light, which would allow for holographic cameras that could be used in almost any situation. These would allow for true 3D teleconferencing. (A similar capability offered today by companies like Portl and Holobox use a technology that is not truly holographic but which relies on a clever optical illusion). And someday we’ll be talking to photorealistic pop up versions of our friends on our phones instead of video chats. The technology may become so seamless that it will be possible to stitch systems together into a fully immersive environment where you can step inside a game. Perhaps even by 2245 — the year of the launching of the Starship Enterprise.


What is... ambient computing?