Jun 01 2023
Digital Workspace

Holographic Conferencing Tech Could Reshape Hybrid Work Collaboration

While the technology is still in its early days, large firms are investing in holographic videoconferencing as a tool to collaborate with far-flung colleagues.

Some of the most famous holograms most people can think of come from the world of entertainment: Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia delivering an urgent message in the original Star Wars movie, or the rapper Tupac Shakur’s holographic likeness appearing onstage at a musical festival in 2012.

However, leading technology companies are working to bring holography to the workplace. In hybrid settings, the goal is to make connections between in-office and remote workers more seamless and lifelike, reduce videoconferencing fatigue, and allow users to show colleagues what they’re working on. 

In the past few years, companies such as Cisco Systems, Google and Microsoft have started testing mixed reality solutions for workplace collaboration that use holograms or virtual projections of people.

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“The evolution of videoconferencing is coming, and holography — which is perhaps a misnomer — is just one part of the change,” says Wayne Kurtzman, IDC research vice president for collaboration and communities. “Within years, not decades, the videoconferencing we used during the pandemic will look so old to us. Online meetings will feel more personal —  in some cases, amazingly more realistic.”

While such setups are not widespread now and require specialized hardware and significant bandwidth and data compression to perform optimally, experts and industry players think there is potential for holograms to upend office collaboration.

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In March 2021, Microsoft introduced Mesh, a mixed reality platform that the company says “allows people in different physical locations to join collaborative and shared holographic experiences” on many kinds of devices. Mesh for collaboration is focused on letting people become digital avatars to interact with one another

In May 2021, Google unveiled Project Starline, which relies on custom-built hardware and highly specialized equipment to create a 3D projection of colleagues into special booths, giving the appearance that they are speaking to each other across a window. Google says the technology, which uses an array of cameras and sensors, leverages research the company has made in computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression. Google has invited more than 100 enterprise partners in a range of industries to participate in demonstrations.

“The technology works like a magic window, where users can talk, gesture and make eye contact with another person, life-size and in three dimensions,” Andrew Nartker, director of product management at Google, writes in a company blog post.

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And in October 2021, Cisco announced Webex Hologram, which uses AR headsets to create 3D holograms of colleagues that can interact. Cisco pitches the technology as a shared, immersive experience that lets users see what others are doing or holding and interact with digital icons.

Currently, because these technologies require specialized hardware setups, they’re not ready for the mass market. However, if the cost comes down, adoption could increase.

“Make holographic conferencing more affordable and generally available, and this becomes the next version of conferencing, not just an executive feature,” Kurtzman says. “It will be about bringing people together in a way that they feel together.”

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Technical Hurdles to Holographic Conferencing

In addition to the cost of the hardware, companies that are interested in holographic conferencing should consider that these technologies “require significant signal and data compression to make people look so realistic,” Kurtzman adds.

He notes that it is technically difficult to make people appear like they are in front of you and that you are interacting with them in real time.

In addition to requiring significant amounts of network bandwidth, one key challenge for companies is the massive amount of data needed compared with what can be supported, Kurtzman says. “The more the data can be compressed, sent and expanded, which also introduces some latency, the better and more believable the conversation,” he says.

Price, bandwidth, data compression and potentially hardware availability will be among the factors that delay the rollout of holographic conferencing, according to Kurtzman. “Yet we are watching the evolution of the next generation of conferencing,” he says.

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