What you first see when you enter the immersive Holodome at MoPOP. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)
When I was a kid, I loved Disneyland for the rides. But as I grew older, I appreciated the original Disney park in Anaheim for the 3-D immersive reality.
From carefully sculpted shrubs and forced-perspective building techniques that made structures appear taller than they were, to how trash cans were themed with paint and staff were costumed, the attention to detail meant you could feel transported to a different world in your own body. And you could experience it with your friends and family.
It was the shared immersive reality of its time, as good as you could get last century.
Now Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. is taking a further technological step into socially immersive worlds, real and imagined, with this weekend’s opening of the Holodome at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. It’s also a lot about attention to detail.
Literally it’s a small step. Unlike acres of walkable Disneyland, you enter the 20-by-20-foot Holodome and stand or shuffle inside the room-sized space with up to a half-dozen others. You’re then surrounded by a nearly complete sphere of imagery down to your toes, with only a small ring of bright projector lights at the very top breaking the illusion.
In contrast to most other experiences along the “extended reality” continuum, you are not holding or wearing any technological hardware. And it’s that less-visible tech that made the Holodome seem more real to me than I have ever felt in my own un-augmented body in an unreal environment.
(It’s not perfect. I wound up keeping my black Smithsonian baseball cap on during the show so the bill would block the view of the lights above. My GeekWire colleague Kurt Schlosser has his own take, and descriptions, of the four experiences ranging from Seahawks to science fiction.)
But the Holodome’s cutting-edge tech is just an enabler for its content and remains a work in progress. Vulcan is careful to emphasize what MoPOP features is a first generation platform preview. “General availability” of Holodome technology isn’t promised until late 2018.
Matt Milios, Vulcan Productions‘ director of digital content, said what’s experienced inside the Holodome has evolved alongside development of the technology that runs it. “At first it was about, ‘Just put a camera there and be in a place that you’ve never been in before,’” Milios said. “And that was really novel and cool for a little bit, and then it was like, ‘There’s gotta be something more to this.’”
That led to an exploration that took two years of content research and production. The intent was to go beyond just visual immersion in a 360-degree space. “It’s also storytelling … and identifying with character and being taken into a world that you otherwise could never go,” Milios said.
Milios places the Holodome’s shared immersive reality squarely in the middle of the extended reality spectrum, as a type of mixed reality. You can look around and see your friends. You’re obviously in your own body.
“Most headset pieces never get that right,” he said. “You’ll look down and there’s nothing there, or you look down and there’s a cartoon hand. In this space you are yourself, and I think for that reason it feels more real to begin with.”
A core part of Paul Allen’s Holodome vision is the social aspect, of not being isolated from others experiencing the same story by headsets or other distracting technology. In that way, the first Holodome stories are not unlike being wrapped inside an absorbing short film with the rest of the audience, albeit with excellent sound and a vibrating floor.
“In these first experiences it was about emotion. We just wanted to create pieces that people felt something, whether it’s the excitement of being on the field with the Seahawks or it’s the fear of being on a different planet being chased by aliens, or the exhilaration of being next to a superstar like Justin Timberlake,” Milios said.
In the future, he thinks there’s an opportunity to tell stories more in line with interests Paul Allen has pursued by other avenues. “How do we take people to places in the world and talk about issues like coral reefs or climate change and do it in a way that we develop an empathetic connection with them?” he said.
That type of experimentation is being encouraged by a second installation of a Holodome next month, called the Creator’s Edition, at a studio in Los Angeles. It’s open to content creators by invitation only. There’s also a software development kit for game development.
As for the storytelling, Milios thinks Holodome content has already surpassed the let’s-film-a-stage-play era of early movies and begun to find techniques uniquely suited to a 360-degree immersive environment. For movies, even of the large-format IMAX and Cinerama variety, those unique techniques included filmmakers discovering the effectiveness of close-ups and jump cuts.
“From a technical perspective (for the Holodome it) could be as simple as just learning how far from camera somebody needs to be where they actually feel like they’re in the room with you, versus being too close and getting too large,” Milios said. And don’t underestimate the role of sound when the story may unfold behind you. “How do you use audio to draw people around their space so that they can make eye contact with the people that … they need to for the story to work?”
In five years, Milios expects Holodome technology will be in use in a number of different spaces for different uses, from game play to interactive narrative where participants can control some aspects of the story.
And when I skeptically asked if Holodomes will ever be so commonplace that our immediate reaction after entering one will be to pull out our smarter phones and socially re-isolate ourselves, as we do in immersive public environments like Disneyland now, Milios was optimistic.
“My personal opinion is there’s eventually going to be a convergence of different technologies,” he said. “There’s going to be eventually some sort of augmented-reality experience that’s also in a location where you can add layers of storytelling to what you’re doing, and be with other people.”
Or, future selves, why just go to the Holodome, when the Holodome can come to, and always be with, you?