I was invited to speak at a luncheon gathering of exhibit design professionals and I used the occasion to probe into the reasons for the obvious scarcity (bordering on blatant disregard) of holography within the museum and tradeshow environments. I began by asking the question “Why don’t you list holography among your palette of visual display tools along with photography, videography, dioramas, etc?”
The primary reasons I got were repetitious but most definitely worth repeating. All were misconceptions I had heard before, but to hear it from professional exhibit designers seemed a bit much. In short, not one exhibit designer in attendance had ever had occasion to really learn about this noble, but completely misunderstood visual display technique. Collectively, their responses gave me a good idea as to why exhibit design houses weren’t returning my phone calls and instilled in me an awareness of the magnitude of my sales and marketing problems. I asked to contribute this article in the spirit that perhaps by presenting the “facts” in print, in a publication of this type, it will spare me, and other serious display holographers, such ignominy in the future.
Myth #1: It costs too much. Most of the design professionals whom I questioned believed that to create an original hologram of decent proportions would cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.
At Laser Reflections we charge $5,000 for a single custom image assuming we shoot (2) 16” x 12” transmission masters (viewable in laser light) and produce one 16” x 12” reflection copy (viewable with an attached halogen framelight); we charge $7,500 for the same thing in larger format (20” x 14”) and $10,000 in our largest single panel format 24” x 14”. Additional copies range from $600 as a function of size and quantity ordered. Of late we have begun offering (4) panel "windows" comprised of 16" x 12" panes (overall dimensions 32"h x 25"w). For this effect we charge $10,000.
These numbers compare rather favorably with commercial studio photographers half-day rates and are typically dwarfed by the costs for on-location shoots as favored by free-spending advertising directors.
In addition, interested exhibit designers operating on a very tight budget can put head-turning holography to work starting at under $500, by using stock images. Collections of stock images, with attached lighting, make excellent temporary exhibits.
There was also a perception among the designers that holography would get cheaper (a la inkjet printing). The facts are as follows: the hardware for the laser imaging system I built for Laser Reflections (a Neodymium:YAG/Glass laser) costs more today than it did twenty years ago (almost $200,000). Over the last five years, the cost of holographic plates has doubled.
The breakthrough in image pricing will come with high volume purchases - we are currently quoting from $395 for a self-contained holographic beverage sign as an alternative to neon signs; $650 for a retail product display case.
Myth #2: It takes too long. I got answers ranging from weeks to months regarding lead times.From scheduled shoots (or sittings) we can deliver ready-to-hang copies in as little as 24 hours - with standard processing we guaranty delivery of copy #1 within five working days of the shoot. Unlike many other holography companies, we are not constrained by the need to design and produce models - we work from real objects/subjects as supplied by customers. Master images are created and processed on-site at the rate of one per hour. When studio time is of the essence (examples being a Peregrine falcon and an Atlanta Falcon) we can shoot up to six images per hour and delay processing until later.
Myth #3: Subject matter is limited. I was told that because of the need for extremely long exposures, holographic compositions were limited to lifeless images of coins, Star TrekTM toys and printed circuit cards - things that can be rigidly mounted to a massive optical table.
Our studio uses a pulsed (Q-switched) laser with exposures of ten nanoseconds to effectively freeze motion. We routinely image people, animals, tanks of fish, etc. nearly anything which can be carried, led, or coerced into our downtown San Francisco studio for the required 30-90 minutes shoot.
Myth #4: Holograms are hard to light properly - improper lighting leading to less than optimal viewing.
All of the images we produce at Laser Reflections include lighting. We designed a low-voltage halogen spotlight which attaches directly to the frame of our wall-art; and we include integrated lighting in all our display cases. In tradeshow or retail environments where overhead lighting can be particularly brutal (and can interfere with image reconstruction), we offer our unique StandOuts featuring built-in shielding which address the problem quite elegantly.
Recently we have begun offering transmission holograms which can be backlit with inexpensive, eyesafe lasers. The payoff for laser lit imagery is that scene depths can be extended from 24” (pretty much our standard using halogen spotlights) to more than six feet of crystal- clear scene depth and in-your-face (to include through-water) projection exceeding three feet.
Myth #5: The work we’ve seen isn’t sufficient quality for use in our (high-profile) environment. The consensus was that holograms were little more than novelty items - typically the images were of children’s playthings or ghoulish monsters - out of place in areas not accessible by skateboard.
Our experience suggests otherwise. Our portrait of Mayor Willie Brown hangs proudly in two locations at San Francisco’s prestigious Moscone Center and the Main Public Library. The Moscone’s general manager, Mr. Dick Schaff responds: “The dimensional, lifelike rendering of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is engaging and blends with our building’s state-of-the-art design.” Of a 23-piece showing we had at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, museum president Peter Giles said, “The holographic displays have captivated visitors with their three-dimensional beauty and realism. The visitors’ response to the exhibit is beyond anything we've experienced.”
Myth #6: They are always green. Many of the shrink-wrapped variety commercial holograms are green because green is an easy color to see and cheap to produce in high quantities. All of the images produced at Laser Reflections are monochrome - however, the single color can be specified as red, orange, yellow, green or blue - with tradeoffs in visibility at the rainbow extremes. Because the images are a single color, we advise customers away from custom images with a critical color component (a multi-colored soda can or a deluxe burger for example) and towards subject matter like people, animals or fine works of sculpture whose spectral shortcomings often go undetected.
In addition, by mixing true color reality and single color virtuality, we further minimize “the color issue”. To achieve this, we created our “now you see it…now you don’t” display case for use with real objects which are timeshared with holographic images. By oscillating two built-in halogen lights, we effectively move the viewers attention from the holograph (located on the front panel) to the product or artifact (located inside the display box). This concept - which we call holographic timesharing - works in museum cases, in trade show exhibits, even on vivariums or aquariums.
Myth #7: It’s gratuitous, stagnant technology. Several designers felt that holography contained no new visual information from photography and that the 3-D aspect was little more than a gimmick. Not one exhibit designer among those I questioned was aware that a holograph has approximately 1,000 times the resolution of a photograph (we can resolve single strands of hair). This property makes it possible to exhibit highly detailed images of fragile or rare objects that other wise would remain unseen in a museum’s vaults. None were aware that images could be animated (in all (3) axis X, Y and Z) via an array of playback light sources. And lastly - not one was aware that a holograph can be turned on and off with the flip of a light switch (now you see a high-resolution 3-dimensional image... now you see through a transparent piece of glass) - all very useful interactive effects for educational and entertainment applications.
For potential users who ask us to fill vast spaces, we can create mixed media packages combining conventional 2-D digital print graphics with holographic elements - but we remind would-be users that the optimum response to our work comes when viewers can get really up-close and personal. At close range the interactive nature of holography really kicks into gear: inviting the view to peer around objects, compelling them to study otherwise hidden details, and then to wonder aloud in compulsory fashion, “how do they do that?”
Furthermore, it was implied that holography had already tried and failed to make a mark within exhibit display and that nothing had changed. It’s ironic that these are the same people that upgrade their computers every six months but they somehow believe that within laser imaging - time stands still. All of the images to which the museum exhibit designers referred (i.e., those shrink-wrapped offerings on sale in their gift shops) were produced using laser technology dating back at least a decade - some to the time of dot-matrix printers.