Digital Holograms
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 6 (June 2008)

Digital Holograms

For many, the concept of a hologram was indelibly captured by the scene in the first Star Wars movie, when Princess Leia is seen as a projected image from the endearing robot R2-D2. However, that projection from the mid-1970s was a fantasy for the future; holograms were actually much more varied in their form and quite different from that movie-based illusion. Since that time, holography has had a bumpy ride. On the one hand, it has become ever present as a security device on credit cards and packaging of every sort, and is hidden inside many industrial devices (supermarket scanners, lighting fixtures, and military displays, to name a few). On the other hand, the creative field of holography has floundered.

The reasons for this situation are many and extend far beyond the scope of this article. One thing is clear, though: Holography is now re-emerging in a new form compatible with the digital revolution that has swept our planet, and a new way of creating holographic images is opening this exciting medium to digital artists.

A thriving community of holographic artists existed in the 1970s and 1980s—an international community that came together for various conferences or exhibitions. And the New York Museum of Holography, founded by Rosemary (Posy) Jackson, was a focal point. This was all pre-digital: Holography was an analog process, one that required customized systems. Thus, every holographer was building his or her own camera and developing a unique style of recording, which broadly fell within four categories.

The first three categories include: laser transmission holograms, which require a laser for their creation and a laser for re-illumination from the rear; white-light reflection holograms, which require a laser for their creation and a point-source white light for their reconstruction from the front; and rainbow transmission holograms, which require a laser for their creation albeit in a more complex process that produces holograms reconstructed in rainbow colors when they are illuminated with a white-light source from the rear. These latter holograms can also be produced in such a way that when they are viewed from a particular position, the person will see a full-color image. As a result, these images are known as full-color rainbow holograms.

The three classes named above are broad in scope, within which artists create their own variations of techniques. Yet in all those categories, the creative content largely relies on three-dimensional compositions of physical objects. However, there was another technique, the holographic stereogram (sometimes referred to as an integral hologram) that falls into the fourth category of holograms and is the precursor to the digital hologram we are beginning to see today.

Developed in the early 1970s, these holograms blend the rainbow hologram process with specially shot film footage. By placing a person on a slowly rotating turntable with a pin-registered 35mm movie camera held in a fixed position, a short piece of film is created of the subject moving slowly for up to a full revolution. The processed film is then transferred with a special holographic system so that each frame is imaged as a vertical-strip hologram on a piece of film about 12 inches high.

Next, the film is placed on the inside of a Plexiglas cylinder and illuminated from below with a white light. The viewer of this final hologram sees a 3D image because each eye is seeing a different view: The left eye might be looking at frame one, while the right eye is seeing frame 10 or 11, for instance. This is essentially a series of stereo pairs of photographs that animate as the hologram is rotated or as the viewer moves in front of it, and which can be viewed in 3D without specialized glasses.

With the development of computer graphics, it became apparent that this same medium could be used to create holograms from digital data. The first images of this kind were created in the late 1970s and were produced by first writing the digital images onto film, which was then used to transfer the sequence of images into the hologram. The holograms were also created on a flat plane as opposed to a cylinder, opening the door for production of very large holograms on 1-meter-wide film.

Holographics North
One company in particular has become a leader in creating large holograms from digital data written to film. Holographics North has been producing very large holographic stereograms for 22 years, and has recently incorporated digital data transfer into it process. Working with many artists, the facility has produced an array of images for clients, receiving a number of awards. John Perry, holographer and director of Holographics North, has worked with artists, including light sculptor James Turrel, with whom he is collaborating to produce a series of images made from digital data for PaceWildenstein, a gallery in New York City.

Working with a digital artist, Turrel’s ideas were created as 3D models; the models were rendered as a series of frames, which were then output to black-and-white film. Using a two-step process, Perry transferred the film frames into a laser transmission hologram, and then used this first hologram to create a second one, whereby the image projects out in front of the film. By illuminating the hologram with laser diodes in a narrow band of blue wavelengths, Perry created a compelling image that is in keeping with Turrel’s original light sculptures, extending his original work into holography.

This technique was also used by Holographics North in another collaboration, with British artist Chris Levine and holographer Rob Munday of Spatial Imaging in London, who shot the film footage of the queen for her first official holographic portrait.

Holographics North is a small facility with a great deal of flexibility, and its strength is rooted in Perry’s ability to work closely with artists to produce custom holograms for installation in a wide range of situations. The growing interest in holography is keeping him busy, with two-thirds of his work coming from fine artists and the remainder from commercial and museum commissions.

Another company using this two-step approach is ColourHolographic, Ltd. in the UK. Started by holographer Mike Medora and Nigel Robiette (a filmmaker with a background in animation, live action, and special effects), ColourHolographic has been producing commercial holograms in sizes up to 50x60 cm. Working with rainbow holograms, Medora and Robiette have been creating advertising holograms (largely in the UK market) for the past 10 years for clients such as Nike, Diageo, Cadbury, and Sony.

Zebra Imaging has developed large holograms of prototype cars from digital data.
In addition, ColourHolographic also developed a line of holograms it calls Movieposters (using footage from original films to make the holograms), with which the company has been promoting Warner Bros. movies in cinemas across the UK and Ireland. ColourHolographic also has been addressing a particular requirement for good-quality, full-color holograms by developing its own line of color film. Lately, the company’s emphasis has been shifting toward the production of holograms that can convincingly replicate artifacts, such as museum antiquities. This requirement for a good-quality recording medium is a key factor in the evolution of all the companies that are developing new holographic products.

Simian Technologies
Holographic North and ColourHolo­graphic, while producing high-quality imagery, are still achieving their holograms through a process that utilizes film as an intermediary. The commercial breakthrough into the direct transfer of rendered images to holograms through a single-step process was achieved by holographic pioneer Ken Haines. His long history in holography began as a graduate student in the laboratory of Emmet Leith, who, with Juris Upatnieks, actually made the first laser transmission holograms in 1962. In 1988, after developing a number of processes in holography, he began working on a system to transfer digital images into holograms via an LCD display. This meant the elimination of the film-writing step.

Though there were a number of other holographers developing similar processes, the one by Haines appears to be the first system to achieve commercial production of high-quality images through a one-step process. This system was built for Simian Technologies, a company he started with his daughter, Debby Haines, a computer programmer who developed the software to process the data from the computer to the LCD, and to automate the system.

Simian’s precision system created small, full-color rainbow holograms from 3D animation or video data onto a photo­resist plate. The end results were holograms for large-run, mass production via a casting/embossing  process. (I personally worked with them in the mid-1990s, creating 3D animations with Alias’s PowerAnimator, the precursor to Maya, running on an SGI system, for a wide range of commercial clients.) However, this process was designed for large-run production of small holograms, and although it could produce very high quality images, the resulting rainbow holograms were nevertheless small in size.

Zebra Imaging
During the past few years, holographic technology has begun to mature. A big factor in this is the huge growth of 3D animation. The shift began to occur in the late-1990s, when high-end packages such as Maya moved to the Macintosh platform, and both Macs and PCs became multiprocessor platforms with fast graphics cards, while prices for memory and data storage dropped. There now exists a large enough base of experienced 3D animators; those numbers, combined with a surge of interest in full-color reflection holograms, has set the scene for a new wave of holographic companies making digital holograms.

Zebra holograms, RabbitHoles, Synfo­grams, Holo-prints—these are all terms currently being used by their respective companies to describe holograms that have been created by a process that transfers digital images into a hologram without using film as an intermediary process.
Looking at the chronological evolution of this technology, in 1996, Zebra Imaging was founded by graduates of MIT’s Media Lab; today it is located in Austin, Texas. From the beginning, this company set out to do something particularly challenging. Its goal was to produce full-parallax digital holograms—which make them viewable from any angle but require much more computer processing of data and time to record the image—using a different holographic recording material, photopolymer, that has a dry-processing workflow.

Beginning with funding from Ford Motor Company to develop large holograms of prototype cars from digital data, Zebra Imaging progressed into military contracts. Improvements in the printing process have created brighter images that can be viewed even with a flashlight, and the company’s ability to tile its images has given it the capability to create very large images constructed from 15 to 20 component images that are 60x85 cm each.

In addition, Zebra Imaging has always had a small number of commercial clients, and the firm anticipates fully re-entering the commercial market next spring using a newly developed production system. This system will offer a faster turnaround time, an increased production capacity of thousands of images a month, and lower costs. One of the markets the company will be targeting is architectural design, where its images can be used to help visualize structures in their environment and the interior design of those structures. In a rather smart move, Zebra Imaging is working with the manufacturers of several major 3D animation packages to create plug-ins for rendering images in preparation for production using its system.

Dutch Holographic Laboratory
Also in 1996, Dutch Holographic Lab­oratory (DHL), in Eindhoven, Holland, had the vision to create a digital full-color holoprinter, which was intended as a system that would attach to a computer for quick 3D visualizations. Although this original concept has not yet been fully realized, a variation of this product is now gaining more attention with sales for both educational and commercial applications. Two systems are installed at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, two others at Kunsang University in Tainan, Taiwan, one each at commercial facilities located in China and Korea.

This image was produced by Dutch Holographic Laboratory, which is working on a digital full-color holoprinter that can be used for quick 3D visualizations.
Digital transfer on the DHL system can be up to 1920x1220 pixels in a two-step process to make full-color reflection holograms up to 30x40 cm in size using three continuous wave lasers to give red, green, and blue exposures on silver halide emulsions. Artists can send their 3D data files for rendering at DHL’s facility, along with several rendered frames for reference. DHL has the capability of creating either reflection or rainbow holograms by this process and can record images into photoresist masters, which can then be used for large-run mass-production embossing processes.

By the end of this year, the company expects to have a new system that will be capable of producing full-color reflection holograms in a one-step process with much shorter production times.

RabbitHoles Media, Geola uab
In the late 1990s, another system for large full-color reflection holograms was under development. A prototype for the system was created by Geola uab, a Lithuanian-based company headed by David Radcliffe. In 2000, XYZ Imaging, a newly formed Montreal firm dedicated to the development of a next-generation holographic printer, acquired the intellectual property for part of the system. With significant funding, XYZ embarked on a research-and-development program, creating an integrated system incorporating Geola uab’s three-color pulsed laser to record 3D rendered frames on specially created full-color holographic film. XYZ produced a number of production machines but ultimately recognized that it needed to develop a market for the holograms in order to stay in business.

In 2007, RabbitHoles Holdings acquired XYZ, the company’s name was changed to RabbitHoles Media, and the holograms have been branded as RabbitHoles. Geola uab, meanwhile, has formed an alliance with Syn4D GmbH, based in Braunschweig, Germany, which distributes the company’s holograms (which are branded as Syn4D Synfograms) in Europe. In the US, Syn4D is represented by Forth Dimension Holographics in Nashville, Indiana.

RabbitHoles Media and Geola uab maintain a collaborative dialog regarding advancements of the technology; however, they are exploring different markets. RabbitHoles Media is targeting high-profile interactive installations for trade shows, theme parks, architectural environments, product launches, entertainment and sports venues, promotional parties, and events. They are also producing smaller-scale holograms for limited-edition collectibles of sports stars, film stars, and rock stars.

“The All-Knowing” by Meats Meier was produced by RabbitHoles Media. A new holographic animated image by Meier will be the centerpiece for the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival awards this year.
“The RabbitHoles medium is the 3D print solution for brands in need of memorable crowd-wowing visual experiences,” says Veta Bates, director of creative affairs at RabbitHoles Media. A recent project, for Six Flags Theme Parks, yielded six 5x10-foot RabbitHoles installations for a new Batman ride at three parks; a project earlier this year produced large-scale posters placed in movie theaters for Paramount Pictures.

RabbitHoles Media is also working with artists to create limited-edition fine art pieces, beginning with two well-established digital artists, Meats Meier and Ron English. After consulting with RabbitHoles Media’s technical team, artists can prepare their work by rendering the data according to RabbitHoles’ specifications.

Meanwhile, Geola uab (also represented by Tutto Tondo in Triest Italy; 4D Studio R in Sharjah, UAE; and De Montfort University in Leicester, UK) has placed more focus on portraiture and recording lifelike scenes. Using a camera and a motorized track system (Holocam) patented by Geola uab to record the multiple views, the company creates full-color portraits or scenes with up to 10 seconds of movement.

Rob Taylor, owner of Forth Dimension Holographics as well as other Geola uab distributors, has one of these camera systems available and can travel with this equipment to make recordings on the road. The Synfographic printing system, run by Geola uab and operated in Lithuania, is one of the four printers developed by XYZ Imaging. The other three are operated by RabbitHoles Media in Canada to create their own brand, the Rabbithole. Geola uab has also worked with artists, most notably Australian holographic artist Paula Dawson, who exhibited her large digital hologram titled “Luminous Presence” at SIGGRAPH in 2007.

Ultimate Holography
In France, engineer-scientist-artist Yves Gentet has developed a new system. Working mostly alone, he surprised the holographic community when he showed full-color holograms produced on his own holographic plates that were literally the best color holographic images yet produced, according to many holographers. Beginning around the year 2000, Gentet decided to create his own system for digital holograms, producing what he calls holoprints. This printer can produce images up to 60x80 cm (larger images can be achieved by tiling) with either horizontal-only parallax (as can DLC, Geola uab, and Rabbitholes) or with full parallax (as does Zebra Imaging), allowing viewing of the image from all angles.

Geola uab utilizes this motorized camera track system to produce full-color holographic portraits and scenes.
However, full-parallax images are enormously demanding of computer rendering time and are therefore much more expensive and time consuming to create. Gentet is offering his holoprints as a commercial service, but because of the expensive recording materials and the time required to record these images, his prices are high. However, he is collaborating with another facility that is run by Leonhard Schuko of Ultimate Holography in Toronto, Canada, which can take Gentet’s master holograms and contact-copy them to produce large numbers of images. Additionally, Schuko produces and sells some of Gentet’s holographic plates.

Photonix Imaging
There is one other facility in Toronto, Photonics Imaging, run by Michael Page. It is a small facility geared mostly for creating digital holographic images from medical and scientific sources, though Page also works with some artists, most notably John Scott. Beginning in 2000, he devised a system to transfer digital data using a light valve, which, unlike LCDs, produces an image that doesn’t show pixels. This facility can produce images up to 60x80 cm but, like Holographics North’s and DHL’s systems, it does so with a two-step process. Final hologram output can be as a full-color rainbow hologram, a black-and-white transmission hologram, or as a monochrome reflection hologram.

There is a quiet revolution happening in holography. Research labs around the world have been advancing the fusion of digital imaging with holography, and we are about to witness a blossoming of this technology into many markets, including art. Holography is changing, growing to accommodate the digital age, and we are at the beginning of a whole new creative exploration of a medium that has always been a source of fascination and magic.

Next month, Part 2 of this article will examine the work being created by fine artists and the educational facilities where this is occurring.

Linda Law is a digital/holographic artist who has been working in holography since 1975. She is a fine artist who has also worked in holographic research, education, as curator for the New York Museum of Holography, as a 3D animator for digital holograms, and as a writer of 3D technology. She can be reached at; for more about her and her work, visit