On June 15, 1987, CompuServe introduced GIF, a way to share images – or animated sequences of images – anywhere. The incredible portability of the late Steve Wilhite’s “graphics interchange format” made it the perfect canvas for viral memes.
Now a company called Looking Glass is also trying to make holograms wearable effortlessly.
“Imagine we’re in a parallel universe and every movie ever made was shot in color, but every human being watched in black and white,” says Shawn Frayne, co-founder and CEO of Looking Glass. “That’s the situation we find ourselves in with 3D.”
He says that if you add up all the CG movies, video game screenshots, 3D models and portrait photos – and, yes, NFTs – there are hundreds of billions of pieces of 3D content that we only experiment in 2D.
That’s why his holographic display company is introducing the Looking Glass Block: a new image format that lets you peek inside a 3D scene, even if you’re viewing it on a screen. standard dish. It’s built on web standards so you can view them in any modern web browser much like a GIF or JPEG.
With blocks, you simply drag or hover over the “image” to achieve a parallax 3D effect, allowing you to “see” the 3D depth. You can even open a web browser in a VR headset, then press an Enter VR button to be transported to a virtual room where you can inspect it in full stereoscopic 3D. It’s as if you were in a mini art gallery.
But the truly remarkable thing about Blocks is that you don’t have to take my word for it. We have integrated some of them here in this story. Have you ever tried to scan the chocolate bar image?
In fact, we are sharing an original artwork from Edge illustrator Alex Castro for the very first time in 3D:
You see, my colleague Alex creates much of his work in Blender, generating an entire 3D scene that you can browse like a video game if you want. But because we don’t have a good way to share this on the web, he usually has to take a flat 2D photo or maybe an animated GIF of his work.
Here is the 2D version we posted on The edge, a week ago today:
Below is another version where Looking Glass took a bit of artistic license to create a diorama-like effect, all from the same Blender files.
Watch closely as you very slowly drag a mouse or finger over the image. See how it stops at every step? This is because each block is made up of 100 slices of a 3D scene, each slice of an image “taken” from a different point of view. It also means that your device has to load all those images as you scroll, so it’s not exactly cheap bandwidth. Frayne says a block can be 2MB or up to 50MB if designed for 8K viewing.
In many ways, the technologies presented here are not new. Using parallax to create the illusion of 3D on a 2D screen is actually an ancient technique, which is touted as a gimmick every decade or so. You could download apps for early smartphones that showed off the idea, and Amazon even tried to sell an entire phone around the concept. (It failed.) Facebook does a 3D parallax trick if you also upload portrait mode photos.
You can even find such things on the web if you search hard enough. In fact, according to Frayne, Blocks are built on hundreds of open web standards, primarily WebXR. (The company plans to make improvements to WebXR but hasn’t done so yet.)
What makes Blocks potentially special, however, is that they live in a container that can fit on any device of any resolution anywhere – and be shared just as easily. Just text someone a link or embed a block of HTML code into your website, and they can experience it too.
Here’s the HTML we used for the art of Alex, for example, which lives in a simple iframe:
“We really think that’s the missing piece,” says Frayne. So today the company is opening a pilot program where 3D creators can enroll to turn their content into blocks, starting with items created in Blender, Unity, and Unreal. It will arrive in open beta this summer.
For now, bulk 3D conversion is a bit of a process. Things like “user-friendly documentation” are still on the roadmap, I understand. The company has plugins for Blender, Unity, and Unreal, but Alex had to submit his work to Looking Glass himself for final mastering, and the company would only do that part of the process in confidential mode.
Over time, Looking Glass says it will expand to “C4D, Zbrush, Procreate, nerfies…even iPhone and Android portrait mode photos.” (I’ve never heard of a nerf before, but they look pretty cool.) Avatar movie about the Avatar homepage and get multiple perspectives on the action.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m pretty excited about the whole thing. But the one thing I can’t figure out, and I’m not sure Looking Glass has figured it out, is the business model. Frayne thinks the strength of blocks lies in their dissemination on the open web, but it’s also clear that Looking Glass will be the one hosting the content. Blocks therefore look a bit more like a YouTube embed than a GIF or JPEG you can host anywhere.
Does that mean we’ll end up watching pre-roll ads, like YouTube, before we can see the holograms? I pressed Frayne about it, and he wouldn’t rule it out – only that he considers his company a better steward than, say, Meta.
“I think we all know what isn’t fun about today’s internet and the pressures that are being created in the world…this is an opportunity to do something different,” he tells me. “If this is as important as we think it is, carrying the transition from terrestrial 2D to 3D, it is our responsibility to try as much as possible to avoid some of the mistakes that have occurred in previous transitions. .”
But Looking Glass envisions it to be a business and not just a way to sell more of its holographic displays, of which there are now around 20,000 worldwide. “Some elements will of course be paid,” Frayne says, adding that he hopes to have conversations with creators during the pilot program about how monetization might work. (The NFT community seems particularly ready to embrace something like Blocks.)
For those with a real Looking Glass screen – this is a product we’ve been following for years, watching it go from a big box to an open prism to more box again and most recently a small vertical screen designed to let you view your smartphone photos in 3D portrait mode – Frayne suggests that its holographic screens will be the best way to view blocks for some time to come. But while he’s not selling the displays at a loss, he admits his 50-person business isn’t yet profitable and he thinks holographic software could become a second “flying wheel” to grow the business.
“Our hardware is the best way to view holograms, our software is the best way to share holograms.” That’s the idea, anyway.
We’ll just have to see if Blocks catch on and if social media platforms embrace or reject them – perhaps in favor of trying to create their own.