INSIDE TORONTO'S PHASE LAB

By Debra Kaufman

March 25, 2024

Reading Time:
6 Minutes

At the Ontario College of Art & Design University, more familiarly referred to as OCAD, Professor Michael Page heads up PHASE Lab, a research lab for “Prototype Holographics for Art & Science Explorations.” For the past ten years, a team of researchers at the lab have been combining science and creativity to explore auto-stereoscopic 3D simulations using everything from digital holography to computational photography and haptics.

Professor Michael Page at PHASE Lab | Image courtesy PHASE Lab

Page’s own path in holography dates to his early interest in some of the innovative displays at the Ontario Science Center where he began focusing on holography in the 1970s. “Holography was in its infancy then,” he says. “There were few places to study it, apart from MIT and the Art Institute of Chicago. We built a simple holography studio, first in the basement of a farmhouse and then a second at OCAD.” He adds that “there was great support for our research. I was able to travel and study with holographers around the world, such as creative holographer Lon Moore, physicist Lloyd Cross, Center of Holographic Arts co-director Dan Schweitzer, and holographic artist Sam Moree.”

At PHASE Lab in the 1990s, “we were doing some commercial work and the group also got some federal funding to push the technology forward. With graduate students and University of Toronto scientists, as well as other area professionals, we developed several innovations in the medium,” says Page. PHASE lab collaborated with Dr. Emmett Leith, co-inventor of 3D holography, on the Visible Human Project; and with MIT Media Lab’s Dr. Stephen Benton, who invented the rainbow hologram, on the development of the Light Valve Digital Holographic Printer. “This was a novel full-color digital holographic printer, the first in Canada, which we used in making holograms for art and science, as well as a teaching tool for more than two decades,” says Page. “By the end of the project, our empirical knowledge of holography turned to an understanding of optical physics and the physicists on the project started making art.”

Huxley Robotic Artefact Scanner | Image courtesy PHASE Lab

Over the years, PHASE Lab has focused on several projects with an eye to medical and educational uses. In 2006, the Lab built the Huxley Robotic Artefact Scanner, an early effort at photogrammetry. “This was aimed at museums being able to do high quality 3D scans of their artifacts,” explains Page.

In 2008 came the RAIL (Real-world Acquisition and Image Liaison) Holographic Scanner, which was created with sponsoring partner STM Holographic. “It used a cinema camera to record 4D pictures at the requisite angles and positions to feed it directly into the holographic printer,” Page recalls. “It would work anywhere with studio lighting and give you the metadata that would facilitate 3D compositing of real-world imagery with computer-generated imagery.” The system was notable for being able to record live subjects and live objects “with absolute precision, adjusting instantaneously for printer specifications.” The “optically encoded motors [were] programmable” and perfectly matched real-world and CGI scenes.

“The Atwood Hologram” with Margaret Atwood | Image courtesy of PHASE Lab

“We invited [Canadian author] Margaret Atwood to sit for a portrait,” shares Page. “Her idea was to be in a tropical forest, holding a bird, which is how we created what we call the Atwood Hologram. That was back in 2008 – so much of what we did then is much easier to do now, but at the time it broke new ground.”

In a quest for PHASE Lab to focus on research and prototype holography for scientific and educational uses, and to attract more art and science students interested in holography, Page designed a holography class at OCAD which he taught for 40 years. In 2008 he also formed a joint curriculum at University of Toronto, where he still teaches. The 13-week course pairs students to learn to make an analog hologram of an object and then develop a digital hologram from 3D animation software. “We try to partner an art major with a physics major,” he says. “It’s a great way to get students thinking about physics and optics. The class is still going strong,”

Image courtesy PHASE Lab

In 2012, PHASE Lab focused on the Haptic Hologram, teaming up with Entact Robotics. “People were always pointing out that, in Star Trek, people could touch the hologram,” says Page. “So, we thought, let’s team up with a haptics company and see what we can get.” He explains, “One critique of digital holography is that it is too static and lacks interactivity.” Page and his team envisioned a hybrid workstation that was auto-stereoscopic with a hologram that was a multi-layered 3D recording. Head tracking was used to change the perspective of the video to match that of the hologram. Finally, gesture recognition was added to the interactivity menu, enabling the user to “touch” the hologram, with digitally synced audio completing the experience. “The full realization of this technology has taken several years.”

The results of that research can be found here: Link.

When STM Holographic bought out start-up company Cerebral Diagnostics, they came to PHASE Lab in 2014 looking for a way to capture and display a 3D view of the brain’s electronic activity during sleep. “Our research was focused on creating a brain model in a commercially standard 3D format and then integrate it into a standardized hologram printing format,” says Page. “Cerebral Diagnostics wanted to be able to FTP animated video holograms to their service bureau.” PHASE ab took the datasets recorded by Cerebral Diagnostics Founder and CEO, Dr. Mark Doidge, and worked to accurately translate it into “camera ready artwork” for holographic printers at PHASE Lab and STM Holographic’s commercial service bureau. According to Page, “these holograms not only represent the data in 3D, they also relay time-based data changes in electrical activity in the brain over time.” The research was “ahead of its time,” says Page.

PHASE Lab is also partnered with Toronto’s not-for-profit MaRS Discovery innovation hub, built in 2000 to commercialize publicly funded medical research and other technologies with the help of local private enterprises. “The group we’re working with at MaRS is trying to get a grant to study potential cures for cancer, but their methodology is tremendously complex for anyone who doesn’t understand the science,” explains Page. “Our job is to create a visualization to help explain the methodology.” This project focused on creating “a computer-controlled animated hologram for use in medical imaging,” says Page. “It’s a latent image, so in that hologram are 16 different 3D scenes,” he adds. “We’re multiplexing them through RGB; because it’s computer-controlled, we can do gesture recognition and animation within it.”

Electric Brain Activity Hologram | Image courtesy PHASE Lab

The Lab recently received a grant to make a full-color camera that can be used to create high-quality analog holograms. Its partner, Coherent Lasers, is producing custom-made lasers for the project, while PHASE applies for a seed grant from humanities and science/engineering organizations to fund the evolution of this use case. Page is also reaching out to create partnerships with museums to make accurate digital holograms of artifacts that will be repatriated. “Our decades of knowledge will allow us to build this full color camera to do the work we propose to do,” he says. “Now what we need is an industry partner.”

Page is enthused about both the Apple Visio Pro and Oculus Quest 3, which surpass virtual reality in their ability to create true XR or mixed reality. “The future of holography is hybrid,” he says. He’s also interested in MIT’s work on tensor holography, which promises to enable transmission of holography data in real time. “These new tools bring us one step closer to that hybrid reality, and holograms will play an important role in that mosaic.”