Tomorrow’s 3D, brought to you by the year 1862

Yeah, it’s goofy, but this ABBAWorld clip, where a man joins virtual renderings of the 1970s Swedish pop stars on stage, points to a future where you may be able to blend your physical reality with computerized fiction.

First, the technology. It’s quite old — a projection with the same visual trick that teleprompters use to make text appear to scroll on glass in front of a speaker’s podium. Holograms started back in 1862, when chemist John Henry Pepper was shocked to see a ghost float on stage. The apparition was an invention by Henry Dircks in which a large pane of glass was placed at a 45-degree angle to the audience, reflecting a brightly lit object hidden off to the side behind a curtain. When the lights came on the actor wearing a sheet hidden at stage left, the ghost seemed to suddenly appear on stage, poof, out of thin air.

Dircks’ approach, called the Dircksian Phantasmagoria, was extremely costly for theaters to replicate, but Pepper came up with a cheaper option — and as Pepper’s version spread across stages in the late 1800s, the technique became known as Pepper’s ghost. Today the small angled panes of glass in teleprompters use the same mirrored trick.

Recently Musion Eyeliner began recreating Pepper’s ghost in live performances using modern projectors to put holographic images on stage, such as this performance by Gorillaz at the Lisbon MTV Awards in 2005, or the ABBA dancing above. The technique allows artificial characters to blend with reality; the Gorillaz, for instance, is a virtual band, with British vocalist Damon Albarn being the only permanent member and cartoons representing the rotating artists behind the beats, and the group Genki Rockets similarly uses 3D projections to put its fictional lead singer Lumi on stage.

Holographic tricks will spread soon. IBM recently asked its researchers to forecast major technology trends for the next five years, and their consensus was mobile phones will project 3D images by 2015. Toshiba is developing flatscreen 3D TVs that do not require glasses. The visual push makes sense, with panel displays becoming so crisp that gadget-makers must move to stereoscopic projection as the next product differentiator.

So what happens if 3D scales everywhere? If fake images can be projected into thin air, we may finally enter the age where telecommuting takes off, or where the avatar you wish to be becomes the being you send into work or evening clubs. The Gibsonian concept of cyberspace may become real, with artifice melding with physical space. You could fly like Superman, hang out with a young version of your deceased father, chat with the stars, send a more muscular version of your body to the beach. The possibilities are endless — hopefully much more than dancing with ABBA.

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