By Debra Kaufman

August 12, 2019

Reading Time:
4 Minutes

If you dream of your own holodeck—a room in which you can be transported to anywhere you desire via a realistic holographic computer-simulated environment—chances are you first made your acquaintance with it in a 1988 Star Trek: Next Generation episode, “The Big Goodbye,” where Captain Picard, Lieutenant Data and Dr. Beverly Crusher enter the 1940s San Francisco home of detective Dixon Hill. But the history of the holodeck predates that episode and has its roots in myth and science.

Imagine turning a room in your house into a portal to any place and any time. Visit a primeval jungle where the T-Rex roams. Fly into space and walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong or play tennis with Bjorn Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final. If you can imagine it, the holodeck can make it happen.

The magic carpet appears in folk tales from around the world, making it arguably a staple of global human culture. No surprise when, in 1950, noted sci-fi/fantasy author Ray Bradbury wrote “The Veldt,” a short story in which children could turn their nursery into any environment they wanted.

The science of holography, the technology enabling the holodeck, has a history as tantalizing as a fairy tale. The real science of holography began in 1960, when University of Michigan professors Emmet Leith, with Juris Upatnieks, created the first 3D hologram.

Gene Dolgoff at TEDx Fulton Street 2018 (Source Photo: Aaron Sylvan -Flickr).
Gene Dolgoff at TEDx Fulton Street 2018 (Source Photo: Aaron Sylvan -Flickr).

That caught the attention of City College of New York professor Gene Dolgoff, who contacted Leith; the two developed a friendship. By 1964, Dolgoff, a self-described innovator in electronics, optics, holography and 3D imaging, with 65 patents to his name, had set up his own holography lab in New York. Computer pioneer Ivan Sutherland also imagined the display of the future, writing in 1965 that it “should serve as many senses as possible.” “The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter,” he said. “A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the ‘Wonderland into which Alice walked’.”

The intersection of scientific and sci-fi holograms took place when Dolgoff delivered a paper on holography at a conference in Czechoslovakia. In the audience was Melanie Toyofuku, who was fascinated by the paper and reached out to Dolgoff. She visited his lab in 1973 and then related what she’d learned about holography to her good friend Gene Roddenberry.

As recounted in this Star Trek fan site, Dolgoff said that Toyofuku brought Roddenberry to a meeting at a New York hotel where he had set up “a bunch of holograms and a laser.” “We spent the day looking at the holograms and going through the theory,” recalls Dolgoff. “I explained that you could not only use this as the basis to teleportation in the future, but you could make a holographic environment in which people could interact with the objects and the scenes. [Gene] was totally into it.”

Jules Urbach, CEO OTOY
Jules Urbach, CEO OTOY

With the idea of holograms in the air, the sci-fi world was appropriately prepped for Star Trek’s holodeck when it first appeared in “The Practical Joker,” a 1974 episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. It was reborn in 1988 for Star Trek: Next Generation, where it periodically fulfilled plot points in numerous episodes. Star Trek fans have assembled a list of episodes in which the holodeck appears, and highlight Jean-Luc Picard’s quote that, “the holodeck has given us woodlands and ski slopes … figures that fight … and fictional characters with whom we can interact.”

OTOY Co-Founder/CEO Jules Urbach grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and dreaming about the holodeck. “It’s four walls, a ceiling and floor filled with holographic panels,” he says. “No matter what you create, you’re truly there. That’s a dream that many people in the visual effects world are really hoping for, and it’s come to fruition faster than [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry could have imagined.” Urbach has a personal connection to the holodeck as well: his best friend growing up was Roddenberry’s son Rod. His passion for Star Trek and the holodeck was also a guiding inspiration behind the founding of his company OTOY, pioneers of Academy Award-winning cloud graphics technology used by visual effects studios, artists, animators, designers, architects and engineers.

Last year, OTOY and Light Field Lab, manufacturers of holographic display panels, launched a partnership to pursue a shared vision: to create the holodeck. “When [Light Field Lab founder/chief executive] Jon [Karafin] founded Light Field Lab, he explained how holographic displays work, and I said, I’m in,” says Urbach. “I’ve been waiting for decades for someone to come up with a viable holographic panel.”

Urbach explained the path to the holodeck: “We have the technologies to perfectly scan these environments.” His company has expertise in not just rendering but CG capture. With holography, he continues, “we’ll get two-way communication, a true volumetric experience, with no glasses or headset to add friction to the experience.” He envisions the addition of kinesthetic cues with touch capabilities somewhere down the road.

Light Field Lab future concept image of the holodeck-jungle.
Light Field Lab future concept image of the holodeck-jungle.

The holographic experience is not off in the distant future of Star Trek, Urbach believes. “I’ve experienced the Light Field Lab panels and it’s real,” he says. When LFL’s manufacture of holographic panels reaches scale, he adds, the cost will come down enough to bring real-world adoption. He predicts that theme parks and concerts will be the first to use holography. Although the ability to touch and feel holograms is further off in the future, says Urbach, “90 percent of the mind-blowing stuff is already achievable as the next step.” He knows where he wants to go on one of his first holographic trips: it is a mix of memory, childhood wonder, and awe-inspiring technology that evokes Roddenberry’s humanistic vision of the future “There will be incredible experiences,” he says. “Going up in the Mars Rover is on my wish list. But I want to visit the village in France where I grew up in the 1980s, which has been greatly changed. To be able to revisit deep childhood memories would be incredible. It’s something that, passionately, I would love to do.”

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