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Light Field Lab has raised $50 million to manufacture and commercialize its SolidLight holographic display platform.
Light Field Lab also unveiled Defy experiences, the first of which, Space and Time, allows you to speak and interact with SolidLight holograms. I tried it out and had a conversation with a god-like character whose head was displayed in three dimensions.
The technology has come a long way from the pseudo-hologram of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie. While it’s not hard to beat the vision of holograms in a movie from 1977, it has taken an extraordinarily long time to create real holograms that look good. And Light Field Lab wants to be the first to get there so it can create scenes like a 3D dinosaur lunging out of a wall in a museum.
“Defy provides a unique glimpse into our vision of the future where physical people, places and things can be digitally transported with nothing but light,” said Jon Karafin, CEO of Light Field Lab. “We are grateful to be supported by a syndicate of visionary investors and partners on our journey building the holographic future.”
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South Korean game publisher NCSoft led the round. New investors Corning, Gates Frontier, LG Tech Ventures and Otoy are joined by additional participation from current shareholders Khosla Ventures, the venture capital arms of Samsung, Verizon, Bosch, Forvia, Liberty Global, and national technology fund Taiwania Capital. To date, the company has raised $85 million and it has more than 400 patents — neatly stacked in book form on a desktop.
“We’re not only thrilled but we are fortunate given the world economy, given everything that’s happening that we’re able to do this with some of the most amazing partners with NCSoft and Bill Gates’s investment fund, LG and Otoy,” said Karafin. “I just couldn’t be more thrilled to have that amount of backing from the biggest companies in all of displays, the biggest in venture, the largest manufacturing, telco, gaming and automotive,” said Karafin. “It really does cover the whole gamut of where you will start to see the holographic ecosystem form and how you get into mass production in the future.”
The latest financing will drive the productization of SolidLight systems with implementations across a variety of enterprise and location-based entertainment applications. The company will expand its space in San Jose, California, hire more people and eventually start manufacturing products.
Recently recognized as one of Time’s Best Inventions, SolidLight is the highest resolution holographic display platform ever designed enabling real digital objects to form in mid-air without headgear, Karafin sai.
“Light Field Lab is building the future of immersive experiences and we are pleased to support the team in bringing true holograms to life,” said Songyee Yoon, chief strategy officer at NCSoft, in a statement. “Being able to see, deliver and interact with 3D content without any assistive peripheral devices will substantially advance the consumer adoption of SolidLight, not just in the entertainment space, but also the way in which we interact and collaborate through remote technologies.”
The hardware features self-emissive bezel-less panels that assemble into modular holographic video walls. The company hopes to create huge wall-size displays using small display that are connected in Lego fashion.
“Light Field Lab’s SolidLight technology will change the way people consume content, providing immersive full-sensory holographic experiences that are indistinguishable from reality,” said Dong-Su Kim, CEO of LG Technology Ventures, in a statement. “Our investment and partnership with Light Field Lab underscores LG’s interest in bringing next-generation displays to market.”
SolidLight technologies combine to offer a turn-key system solution for a wide range of next-generation experiences. Defy is powered by Light Field Lab’s proprietary real-time WaveTracing software.
Why it matters
The pseudo-holograms of the past were entertaining.
But Karafin said, “The main difference, and this is one of the things that we’ve started to reveal more about how our technology works, is we’re forming an actual object through light versus these things that are more image-based, so you can get left and right eyes, which gives you stereoscopic views. We’re forming the interference that allows you to form the actual spotlight that your eye can focus on.”
Karafin believes that there is so much more to see. We’re not using a lot of our brains by looking at 3D images on 2D screens.
“I’m finding it more and more fascinating through all of COVID you will have people end up doing while they looked at their devices more and more,” Karafin said. “They watch more media. And it turns out that people are spending well over two-thirds of their waking hours looking at 2D media. We’re living this life. Holograms are important because 2D images are just an illustration of the object. Our brains actually evolved to see images with their brain, not with our eyes. Only a fraction of neural pathways are triggered when you look at a 2D image versus the object or the hologram of the object.”
If you use your brain more, you have better cognitive ability, better memory, and better spatial understanding.
“That’s why we find holograms are in fact important versus other more illusion-based representations. It is 3D,” he said.
The company was founded in 2017 by Karafin, Brendan Bevensee, and Ed Ibe, with the single mission to enable a holographic future by building upon the founders’ collective expertise of light field technology innovation. The team had experience working at light field capture and display maker Lytro in the past.
Light Field Lab has accomplished its latest milestones without tons of resources. It has 25 full-time people and another 25 contractors. The company raised $35 million to date from a lot of marquee investors including Khosla Ventures, Samsung Ventures, Verizon Ventures, Comcast, Liberty Global Ventures, BoschVentures (RBVC), Taiwania Capital, NTT DoCoMo Ventures, Hella Ventures, AVG, R7 Partners, and ACME Capital.
Space and Time demo
After explaining the tech once again to me and building some anticipation, Karafin walked me through his team’s latest demo.
Karafin showed me historical examples of things that pretended to be holograms but really weren’t. Then he led me to a dark room to show the real thing. There were faux jungle-like plants and some sound effects playing to set the mood, and in the middle of it was this head with a painted face.
It was the face of a god. He called himself “Aether,” which, in Aztec mythology, is the Creator or God of Light.
It took a moment to find a good viewing angle. I could see it was slightly pixelated compared to its real-world surroundings. But it was a 3D object, as I could move my head and see different parts of the face.
In an eight-inch area of the image, the features were sharp. You don’t want to be too close or too far away. It was just on a single module, or brick. I had a full conversation with the god, but he wasn’t extremely talkative. As I left him, I said we would let him get back to sleep.
It turns out the god was lip-syncing speech from one of the team members in another room. I thought it was AI. We had a good laugh over the joke, which was like the Wizard of Oz. But it’s not smoke and mirrors.
Back in 2021, I saw a little chameleon using the same technology. It was cool, but this looked better. I put my hand close, and it went right through it. I moved to the side and the perspective of the head changed. And when I moved away from the display, the litter critter disappeared from my view. If I went really close, I could see a kind of “screen-door” effect, and some pixelation. The images basically have tradeoffs on size, scale, and density. But even with one 28-inch screen or a single brick, they look good.
Assembling a hologram
Light Field Lab had to assemble the display from smaller submodules that can produce the hologram. Each submodule, or brick, is 16K by 10K pixels. The brick’s display surface is six inches by four inches.
By putting 15 of those holograms bricks together, the company can assemble a 28-inch holographic display that can project images in front of it. It can push 2.5 billion pixels to the generated holographic object and scale it to any size that fits within the 28-inch display space.
The density of the images was about 10 billion pixels per meter. By comparison, an 8K screen might show you 33 million pixels.
“That’s a tiny fraction of what’s required in order to do the modulation for something called graphic,” Karafin said.
Karafin showed me a slice of the electronics in the “brick” SolidLight module. It’s full of field programmable gate arrays that will be cost reduced in mass production. But it means there are a lot of chips and wires running through the boxes. The manufacturing is quite complex.
“What we’re doing is literally fusing silicone together. The nanoparticles are controlling, at the molecular level, the ability to propagate light, and form in constant amplitude playing with a numerical aperture that’s chemically formed,” he said.
Over time, the company aims to use its submodules to create modular holographic video walls that can project gigantic 3D objects, like a dinosaur in a museum. Over time, the company wants to build video walls with 10 billion pixels per meter of resolution, enabling huge displays in places such as theaters, stores, and entertainment centers.
“It allows you to do much more interactive things,” Karafin said, like having the lip-sync conversation with me.
A hologram is the recording and projection of light. The below couple of paragraphs are how Karafin described this to me in 2021.
Everything around us is a collection of light energy visible through our eyes and processed by the visual cortex of the brain. The “light field” defines how photons travel through space and interact with material surfaces. The things that we ultimately see as the world around us are bundles of light that focus at the back of our eyes. The trick is getting your eyes to focus on a particular point in space.
Light Field Lab’s technology re-creates what optical physics calls a “real image” for off-screen projected objects by generating a massive number of viewing angles that correctly change with the point of view and location just like in the real world. This is accomplished with a directly emissive, modular, and flat-panel display surface coupled with a complex series of waveguides that modulate the dense field of collimated light rays. With this implementation, a viewer sees around objects when moving in any direction such that motion parallax is maintained, reflections and refractions behave correctly, and the eyes freely focus on the items formed in mid-air. The result is that the brain says, “this is real,” without having any physical objects. In other words, Light Field Lab creates real holograms with no headgear.
Here’s how he added to that in my most recent visit in 2023.
The hologram works very much like the way that you see the actual world around you. And one of the misnomers about how you see is that you don’t actually see because this is made of feathers you’re actually seeing because photons are traveling everywhere. Ultimately, this material will scatter the wavefront to your eyes, unable to selectively focus anywhere in space, but your eye then is literally moving constantly. And the flat display cannot recreate what the object actually would be because it’s a single flat plane or some number of flat images. So what we’re doing and the whole vision is to untether everything, get rid of the accessory and have a way to socially interact and change the way that we visually communicate all together, and not have headsets or things that are a barrier to communication between people.
So the high level way the tech works, a four-dimensional surface that allows us to then modulate the wavefront to form the inverse opposite reflection of light that will form this interfering spot. And then these spots wherever you have, within a defined volume are able to then create exactly what would have reflected had the object actually been there in space. And that can be both in front or behind. So virtually, or in the real image space.
There’s no head-tracking, no motion sickness, and no latency in the display.
“And what’s really important to take away is that you don’t see that bird or this flower,” he said. “You see the photons are interacting with the material properties. Ultimately, we’re seeing a wavefront that your eye can freely focus on. And that is hugely important that your eye is naturally focusing, converging, accommodating. And that’s what something a flat display just never can achieve. So what we’re doing is removing this headgear, removing the dragging, removing all this other accessories stuff, and creating real objects.”
Light Field Lab’s technologies combine size, resolution and density to project SolidLight Objects that accurately move, refract and reflect in physical space.
The directly emissive modular SolidLight Surfaces form dense converging wavefronts with billions of pixels of photonic resolution. Untethered to gear, SolidLight enables viewers to see digital objects in the physical world that escape the screen and are indistinguishable from reality. OK, you can distinguish as they are now, but in the future, the tech will get better. I’ve already seen it get better twice since 2018. Back then, a single brick showed me an image that was 160 million pixels running at 60 hertz.
Light Field Lab is starting to deliver its SolidLight turnkey solution to customers are using it to create things like exhibits or retail product displays using holograms. The real-time interactivity is powered by Light Field Lab’s proprietary WaveTracer hardware and software, in conjunction with multiple self-emissive bezel-less SolidLight Surface Panels that form modular holographic video walls.
These SolidLight Surfaces scale to accommodate a wide range of next-generation entertainment, advertising, and commercial applications with an eye towards mass-production in the future to support consumer markets.
“It’s only after you reach out to touch a SolidLight Object that you realize it’s not actually there,” Karafin said. “SolidLight redefines what is perceived as real, reshaping visual communications, audience engagement and customer experiences forever. Our whole mission is to redefine visual communication.”
Building for the future
Light Field Lab has a multi-generation roadmap when it comes to its future products. It’s on its second generation now, but in future generations it hopes to generate some sci-fi stuff, as you can see in some of these images.
The company will use the money to help it get closer to high-volume manufacturing. Right now, it has about 15,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and it could grow that to 35,000 shortly. The team is about 25 people now.
“With all the things happening in the tech industry, we’re able to hire a lot of people,” Karafin said. “We’re getting into building. From what you see us doing today with our panels, call that the artisan build approach,” Karafin said. “Then we will build out the manufacturing process and the production line. That gets us into the market and doubles our team size.”
The company will likely start with the “video wall” customers who are building art or interactive experiences, from hotels and nightclubs to museums or gaming centers.
Asked about the early adopters, Karafin said, “When you talk about entertainment, you talked about large venues, the things that you were mentioning, Vegas, corporate spaces, is the largest segment within the video market. So things like corporate lobbies, like executive centers, things where there’s high foot traffic, and you’re looking to differentiate yourself as a brand. And that’s why that’s one of the fastest growth markets. This is a little deeper into the future.”
Products could start hitting the market in a couple of years. Karafin thinks of cinematic entertainment experiences as ideal for this kind of technology. But he isn’t ready to pre-announce anything coming from customers.
“Every major manufacturer of displays has something modular,” Karafin said. “For television fabrication, you can’t keep going higher density and you can’t keep going bigger. So this is literally showing that you need another way. And that’s where you’re seeing the video walls pop up.”
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