Companies are developing augmented reality technology they hope will be used by everyone from football clubs to your GP.
Tom Pascoe, photo by Chris Bethell
From where I'm standing, I can see Tom twice. The broad-shouldered sales manager is standing next to me, beaming as watches himself – because he’s also opposite me, as a hologram on his phone, wearing a Liverpool kit and bouncing a football between his knees. "So embarrassing," he protests. "I haven’t played football in so long."
We’re in the conference room of a shared workspace in the City, with the company’s founder, Janosch Amstutz, and his newest employee, Tom Pascoe. They are keen to impress; both seem a little sheepish that they don't have an office of their own yet, adding that they’ve been looking at permanent new locations all week. As they demonstrate the hologram their eyes dart between the phone screen and my expression, making sure it's having the desired effect. "A lot of people look at me really strangely until I get the phone out," Tom tells me later, referring to his meetings with prospective clients. "Then it takes them about three minutes to realise what it is they’ve just seen, and then we can have a conversation."
Augmented reality – or AR – refers to technology that overlays simulated objects onto the users' view of the real world. So far, the technology has mostly been used for fantasy and animation – the most obvious recent example being Pokémon Go, which placed the game's characters on every street corner for users to discover with their smartphones. Yet, the potential of technology that can edit, improve and impose on the physical world goes far beyond gaming.
HoloMe – whose office I'm standing in – is a new startup advancing the technology into the realm of communication, by creating holograms of real people.
Janosch founded HoloMe eight months ago. Until that point he’d been working as a commodities manager with a firm in Switzerland, a job he describes as dry – "moving large rocks around the world". He had designs on something more interesting, so began personally financing a group of Russian programmers with the intention of creating humans in augmented reality. The project hit walls, some elements were shelved, until eventually the technology began to come into focus.
"We found a way to create human interaction that nobody else is doing," Janosch explains. He speaks with a part-Swiss, part-Australian accent, and all the earnestness required of a tech-startup founder.
In simple terms, HoloMe converts a video of a person into a lifelike "hologram" that can be viewed using a smartphone or a tablet. The image, enhanced with effects to make it appear 3D, attaches itself to the floor and occupies the space, moving around but also allowing the person viewing the hologram to move closer or further away. During our conversation, Tom demonstrates one of their older examples: a catwalk model who walks up and down the room, modelling a floral dress. The content itself is a bit "woman in red", but the effect is undeniable. She’s there.
Fiction has, strangely, tied us to an outmoded idea of what a hologram should look like. The shaky blue visions of Star Wars are limited compared to what HoloMe have already achieved. Even the most famous hologram to have been produced – Tupac, at Coachella in 2012 – was a fuzzy, ghostly thing. The holograms I'm looking at are fully realised people: vivid, detailed, in the room. "It puts them in your space and you in their space," Janosch pitches. "The experience is totally different. You’re there."
The idea is that businesses will use HoloMe’s technology to create enhanced communication with users. You’ll be able to watch a model walk around your living room while you shop for jeans. Football clubs (HoloMe are in conversation with two of them) will be able to beam new signings into their supporters’ living rooms. Record labels can create music videos that pop-up on street corners. The company have been talking with tourist boards and museums, interested in location-triggered holograms that could act as virtual tour guides, waiting for you at landmarks.
Tom, who joined the company in November of last year and sells the idea with a buoyant Scouse lilt, confidently reckons anyone who fails to see the potential of the technology is being short-sighted. "The companies who write it off are the same companies that saw Christmas fail for them in terms of revenue," he adds. "A lot of companies are now reaching out to us because they are realising they’ve got to make a change to stay relevant."
It’s certainly true that augmented reality is having a moment. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter have all experimented with it, to varying degrees. In December of 2016, American startup Magic Leap – a business which raised $1.4 billion from investors including Google to develop AR devices – was valued at $4.5 billion by Forbes. Yet, so far, beyond the dog-ears your little sister adds to every photo she takes of herself, the felt impact has been small.
Janosch is determined for HoloMe to change this, describing companies like Magic Leap as manufacturers of "hugely futuristic" ideas, but suggesting – perhaps unfairly in Magic Leap's case – that they have produced very little in the way of actual results. "My mentality – and the team shares this – is that we should be developing tech for what’s possible now," he tells me. "We’re creating for mobile devices. We’re deploying it to people now."
The pair relish listing the possible uses for their technology. They are currently finishing work on an app that will allow you to scroll through pre-made holograms from accounts you follow – celebrities, bands, newspapers – as well as sending holograms of yourself to your friends. You could send a hologram of yourself sipping Daiquiris on holiday to your mum, have a protester stand in your kitchen describing the scene of a riot, or host an Elton John concert in your bathroom. They also foresee plenty of ways that HoloMe can seamlessly blend with the physical world. "If you're close to a house that’s for sale and you see a HoloMe logo on the for sale board, you can open the app and a real estate agent can appear and pitch you the house," Janosch grins.
The company has also mastered a live-streaming version, meaning holograms could be recorded and beamed out in real time – a breakthrough achieved less than 48 hours before our interview.
The full potential of HoloMe's work, and the promise of lifelike augmented reality, is both bright and alarming. Politics is one area where the company sees a wealth of opportunity. "The thing politicians have the least of during a campaign is time," Janosch explains, excitedly. "They’ll be able to get in the presence of people millions of times – you can multiply a hologram infinitely using a smartphone." Tom adds that HoloMe is in conversation with one British political party already – they won’t say who – as well as another in Central America.
If the prospect of a lifelike Boris Johnson pitching up in your bedroom to canvas the youth vote is distressing enough, take solace in the fact that – for now, at least – you’d have to switch your phone on see him. The real black-sky thinking comes with the prospect of wearable technology.
Apple’s manufacturer, Quanta, closed a deal late last year to start producing lenses for augmented reality glasses. Head-mounted lenses are widely accepted as the direction in which mobile technology is headed, meaning that objects will be superimposed on the landscape seamlessly. In other words, the HoloMe politician will be in the room whether you pick up the phone or not.
In the really not too-distant future, you’ll be able to see vivid renderings of real people, right in front of you, in real time. Janosch mentions the likelihood of hologram Skype calling and the removal of physical business meetings. "You'll no longer have to go into the bank – your banker can beam themselves into your living room," he continues. "Once the tech gets accurate enough, there is even potential to eliminate going to the GP."
The alarm bells are obvious. Particularly paired with glasses, HoloMe’s technology could affect plenty of professions, from teaching to customer service, replacing them with an infinitely replicable workforce of lifelike models. Needless to say, the prospects of realistic human holograms reaching the porn industry are as inevitable as they are depressing.
Janosch insists that HoloMe presents no immediate ethical problems, as people have to consent in order to become a hologram, yet accepts that, in general, augmented reality needs to be kept in check. "The space definitely needs regulation," he nods, "and I don’t think it’s going to come from the large tech firms, I think it’s got to come from government." He is also keen to stress what he sees as the overwhelming positive potential: people using AR to see better, to read more easily, the possibilities of using the technology as a storytelling device. HoloMe have even been in conversation with the UN about creating remote teachers for developing countries. "Rather than sending out a bunch of volunteers and trainers, you can send out one volunteer with a bunch of iPads."
With each new technological development, we're presented with a trade-off. Do you want to be tracked, in exchange for easy directions? Do you mind us knowing your shopping habits in exchange for bespoke book recommendations? The evolution of augmented reality will present questions about the physical space we inhabit. How much of our walls and floor-space we are prepared to give up? How much of the sky are we willing to cede?
At the moment, we are in control. If you don’t want people to walk into the room unannounced, you just keep your phone in your pocket. But with the inevitable emergence of wearable technology, the prospect of more invasive interruptions seems inevitable.
For now, though, the technology has barely opened its eyes. HoloMe might offer a daunting window into just how malleable "reality" could prove to be, but currently they're a small startup, full of enthusiasm for the good they reckon their technology can do.
Tom and Janosch don’t seem worried. Quite the opposite – they seem pretty convinced they are readying to change the world. Until then, they have to make do with showing me a guitarist play the riff from "Sweet Child O’ Mine" on a 20-second loop. "Sorry about this," Tom laughs. "He doesn’t know the rest of the song."