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Holobama: 'Holograms' greet Election 2008

November 6, 2008 | John Serrao
cnn_hologram.jpgTuesday's night Presidential election not only ushered in change for the executive office but also for election coverage. 2008 was the year to showcase your tech in TV land. Fox featured a hanging quadruple-display cube, MSNBC had their floating, digital election results map (made by Brainstorm) while ABC employed a series of advanced Perceptive Pixel touchscreens. Every network was dressed to the nines in their newest technological gadgetry but CNN stole the show with their now famous 'holograms'.

View the Effect here:


We say 'holograms' with the quotes for a reason.  Contrary to what the companies involved with this production may want you to believe, those holograms were not actually in the studio with Wolf Blitzer - meaning they were not holograms at all. Jessica Yellin was superimposed on top of the regular video feed, which would disqualify this broadcast as having true telepresence qualities in the technical sense. On screen, it did appear as if the holograms were in the same studio, adding more fuel to the 'what-is-telepresence' debate. Interestingly, the feeds were apparently dumbed down to create an effect more similar to a science fiction movie viewers would be more comfortable with.

Regardless of their technical classification, CNN was touting their new 'holograms' throughout election night 2008.  The holograms eventually found their way onto live TV twice, once in a report from Chicago by Jessica Yellin and lastly when Wolf Blitzer interviewed of the Black Eyed Peas. Both Jessica and were beamed into the CNN studios, live, as if Blitzer was interviewing them in the actual New York studio. While the holograms looked a bit jerky, this was still a major development in the world of 3D.

The 'Transporter' Room - where the interviewee stands

The basics of the system don't sound all that space-age at first. A series of 44 HD cameras are laid out in a circular array that surrounds the interviewee in a booth of sorts. The cameras all shoot at various angles, completing a 3D composite image which makes up the hologram you saw. This, however, is only the tip of a technologically complex iceberg.

Wired was one of the first mainstream media outlets to report on the mechanics of this setup more fully. It appears that the system uses telemetry tracking software that VizRt supplied while their partner company SportVu kicked in 'video processing technology' to create the images. The interplay between all the systems is very sophisticated, as the image below would indicate.

A diagram of the CNN Hologram, backstage

The Viz IO calibration tool converts the live CNN studio camera feed positions into a map of 3D coordinates. This information gets beamed out to the remote CNN hologram rooms, with their 44 cameras, which then instantaneously choose which 2 of the 44 cameras in the remote location best sync with the live CNN studio feed. Exactly which two cameras get used dynamically shifts depending on the 3D coordinates the Viz IO feeds the remote studios, allowing both participants to move around fairly naturally.

will.i.am_cnn_anderson_cooper.jpgAfter the remote images come back to the CNN headquarters, the Viz Engine plug-in (developed by SportVu) creates a fully 3D representation of whomever is in the remote 44 camera studio; in this case that was Jessica Yellin and After being processed further, the 3D image is thrown back to the CNN (in full HD mind you). In the mixing room, Jessica and were united with Wolf's live camera feed, creating the effect you saw during election night. All of these steps are performed in well under one second to create an almost lossless live holographic feed.

Around the country, views were decidedly mixed. Some called it a 'cute trick,' 'a vaudeville act' while others claimed it was a 'cool technique'. The head of CNN's wizardry, senior vice president David Bohrman said about the hologram setup that he, "didn't want it to be the centerpiece of our coverage." He thought the technology would merely add to the broadcast, calling it "an ornament on our tree." To better understand where he was coming from with the technology, watch Wold Blitzer's interview with Bohrman.

Also remember that while this demonstration may have been the first use of 'holograms' on primetime TV, they have been used in other high profile engagements many times before.

Still, take nothing away from Bohrman and the CNN team. This was surely a technological achievement and a milestone in the long evolution of 3D technologies. Considering the VizRt technology was sending out 3D holograms in full HD in real time, it shouldn't be too long before this same technology finds its way into the world of telepresence. You may just see someone you didn't know the next time you stroll into the board room.

Additional Reading:

CNN beams in guests with new hologram technology [AP]
Beam me up, Wolf! CNN debuts election-night 'hologram' [CNN]
How the CNN Holographic Interview System Works [Gizmodo]

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