Bruce Dell is no stranger to controversy. In about 2011, his company Euclideon announced a point cloud technology called Unlimited Detail, which promised to render huge 3D data sets without loading, buffering, or relying on a GPU. The claim was huge — big enough that some called it a hoax.

In the decade or so since its debut, Unlimited Detail has proven itself. Today, you’ll find it powering 3D applications across industries, including applications sold by heavy hitters like Microsoft and Leica Geosystems.

With his new company, Axiom Holographics, Dell is challenging industry norms again. This time he’s betting that holograms are a superior technology to VR for displaying 3D data. And he says that’s true whether you want to display wide-area maps, architectural designs, scans of cars, or even captures of Mars.

But why not VR? Why build a table when people can simply pop on a helmet? Why stake a new venture on a technology that some people see as old-fashioned? Dell laid it all out for us when we caught up earlier this month.

Sean Higgins: Let’s start with the obvious question. Euclideon is known for very fast rendering of large point clouds. Why was your next step into holograms?

Bruce Dell: The question was, How do we take things from the digital world and bring them into the real world? We looked at the way people were doing it and said — quite arrogantly — that everyone’s doing it all wrong.

For geospatial data, they were doing VR caves. That’s a big room that you go inside, and it tracks your position as you move around. So if it’s displaying a box, I can see the letter A on the front and I can walk around and see B on the side and C on the back. I can look underneath it, and things like that.

That sort of technology has been around for a very, very long time. But we felt that there were a lot of problems in that area. One of them was that it’s only one user at a time.

Finding a different way to display data with parallax sounds like a big technological challenge. Did you have to build everything from scratch?

We worked in the area of bending light waves through special crystals. Doesn’t that sound high-tech and sci-fi? Bending light waves through special crystals and then unbending them with sort of “anti-crystals” — to make up a word because we don’t have one — that bend them back to normal.

This meant we could build a table where multiple people were all able to see the object. So if I have a table and you are at the front and I’m at the back, then you can see the front of the building and I can see the back of the building. We only see what was actually projected for us, individually.

These objects appear in the air. I’m loosely using the term “hologram,” a Greek word that means “whole picture.”

And then we have a wand that is so simple to use. You aim and when you pull out it all gets bigger, and we push in and it’ll get smaller. So if I have the Earth and I say I want to see your house, I go there’s America [pushes in]. There’s New Jersey [pushes in]. There’s my city [pushes in]. There’s roughly the right area [pushes in]. there’s my house.

You can navigate so simply, just moving things around, in and out. If you want to move to the next place, just make it smaller again, pull it back again to zoom out.

So what I’m doing now with Axiom Holographics is a combination of running unlimited point cloud data and not wanting to run that on a screen. I wanted to run that on something more interesting. I wanted to have a table where it appears like a physical city model.

So is this just for your company’s own use right now, or is it ready for a business that wants to find a new way to explore and interact with 3D data?

It’s ready for everybody.

Is there a way that someone can try it out? I know one of the big problems with VR is that it’s hard for people to try it out before they invest, and really know whether it’s going to work for them or not.

We’re planning showrooms around the world, and over in the US. I’m not allowed to say too much just yet. Basically, people can come to these showrooms and have a look at all our technology. And they’re fun — I mean you get to see all sorts of stuff you’ve never seen before.

How hard is it to get your data onto the table? If they can’t run it, or get their data into it, that’s game over, right?

I think people will be saying I love it, but can I use it? Is it is it too hard to use?

The simple answer is that we needed to make it as easy as possible for everyone to use. So we take nearly every 3D format. If your format is too big, you’ll have to convert it into our format. But generally, most formats won’t need that.

It’ll upload any models onto the table. And it is as simple as PowerPoint: You make bookmarks, you put little animated objects, you can do all sorts of stuff like that for presentations.

It’s compatible with tools like Unreal Engine and Unity, so if you wanted to be quite sophisticated and make your own stuff, you can. You’ll also find that we’ve filled in everything in between, so you can pick your level of complexity. So if you say I’m not complicated at all, that’s okay. You upload your model, you press load, you grab it and you make it the right size nice and easy.

Axiom is also working on hologram tunnels, right? What is that? It sounds wild.

This is where spatial technology — geospatial technology — is going. So these are big, long 20-meter tunnels that a family goes through. This video is showing dinosaurs. It’s computer-generated but gives you the general idea. The objects can come out of the wall up to three meters.

That seems like a wild application. What inspired it?

These tunnels were created originally for historic preservation. I have very great respect for the work of CyArk. But I thought to myself, Love your work, but not enough people are donating to you. The problem is really big and you’re making a small dent in it.

The problem of the world’s architecture being destroyed is big. Sometimes it’s due to earthquakes, or people of a certain mindset blowing things up. On other occasions, it’s actually archeologists themselves who are the biggest threat to history. They dig up places like the Indus Valley and then take pictures and go home. Then the wind and the weather begin to destroy them. We’re losing world history all over the place.

We felt that the best way to deal with this was scanning things using a variety of different methods — everything from depth sensors, laser scanners, 360, scanners, the whole lot — and using our technology to handle that tremendous amount of data. Then, make big, long 20-meter tunnels that families walk through. So they actually see the things all around them.

And these tunnels can be used for festival entertainment purposes. With the idea that we can scan in real-world places, charge a fee, and then actually send a little bit of money back for upkeep.

I can see how a table or tunnel would have a lot of use cases beyond historic preservation. Can you talk about a few you’ve seen already?

Some people use it for communication. One use case was a border dispute in the Middle East. And sometimes it’s a bit of a show: To say, look at this impressive thing that we have.

People buy things when they feel confident. So if I have a car for sale for $10,000 in the newspaper, with no picture, then no one buys that. That’s why I show a picture. Maybe a few more pictures mean someone might buy it. But if someone actually comes and sees it, and gets enough information, slowly their hand starts to open. And they say okay, you can have my money because I feel like I’m making an informed decision.

Right now, when you’re showing someone a project you’re going to build in the future, like a hospital, you don’t have the option showing the physical object to them. That’s where holograms come in.

Say, for example, you are an architect and someone goes to your firm and two other firms to have a hospital built. One firm says, “We’ve got a bunch of pictures.” The second one says, “We’ve made a plastic model.” And you say, “I’ve got a hologram table where we can zoom in and out of every room and remove floors, and walls, and do all kinds of things with this simple wand.”

It gives you some extra points. Your customers will feel more confident that they know what they’re getting.

Courtesy of Axiom Holographics

When we were talking earlier, you said that this technology is a great way to get regular people to use 3D geospatial data. How does that work?

They’re very good friends, holograms and geospatial technology. We think the two go hand in hand. 

Geospatial data can be a little bit boring to the general public. But make it out of light so they can walk all around it, and things become quite exciting again. And so that’s sort of where we see ourselves: being more interesting, more flashy, and trying to bridge the gap for ordinary people so they understand what the geospatial technology community is doing with 3D data.

Why is that important? Why should the general public be using holograms to interact with 3D geospatial data?

These 3D maps we generate in the geospatial industry tell us things like fire goes faster uphill than it does downhill. Or answers questions like, What do we see in our line of sight? Which way is the water going to go? Will the phone towers be able to reach us well? And things like this.

So there are lots of reasons why people said we need to have that third dimension. To add to that, a lot of decisions are made by human beings literally just having a look at something and understanding it.

We do work with the Mars Rover. One of the universities has one of our hologram tables, and they use it to count craters, examine the models, and work out all kinds of things about Mars.

Or, think about shipwrecks, where they’d send drones down to scan. Then, when they bring them up, they’ve got two choices. They can either put it on a screen or on a hologram table or tunnel.

Imagine it — that data all loaded up to your hologram tunnel, and you walk around it that way. That’s a really, really interesting way to look at this data. It enables non-geospatial people to make a lot of these decisions.

The hologram table and the Mars Rover

I have to ask, why not just use VR or AR headsets? Couldn’t you argue that holograms are just reinventing the wheel?

If you tell somebody, put on your VR helmet and have a look at the lovely new house we’re going to make for you. They love it, they say it’s wonderful. You tell them a second time next week. Okay, let’s have a look again at it. They say, We did that last time and we’re not doing it again.

We generally say humans hate things on their heads. If you go down to the beach, you can wear a snorkel and you’ll be able to see underwater — it’s a pretty amazing power. But not many people do it.

We’re mercilessly cruel to VR because we see VR as filling dusty cupboards and the numbers really do support that.

Is the problem that technologists were trying to bend existing technology to new use cases, rather than do something new? And that meant they weren’t thinking about the user experience?

I would agree fully that they’re not thinking about the user experience. That’s about as simple as you can say it.

If you read about VR and AR, it seems like they’re seeing adoption at enterprises, at least. Are you seeing something different? Is that all hype?

You don’t get VR headsets on a board of old gentlemen. It doesn’t happen. They’ll do it once and they’ll say, That was fun and they’re not going back. Every VR experiment I know of has failed. There is no school that says, let’s put on our VR helmets, children, for every history lesson. The military rejected it. Factories have rejected it.

I think the simple the simple factor or the one that most stands out to me is around the world computer game addiction is a very big problem in some countries. Yet, all research to date has not found one single human being on the entire planet that is a VR addict. Not one. And one number says that 60% of people get sick from VR.

We see VR as the wrong solution. We say, Let’s stick the screens flat on a table, on the walls all around you. Yes, you wear a little pair of glasses, but those are made of glass, and you’re used to that.

Courtesy Axiom Holographics

If holograms are the answer we’re looking for, what comes next? I assume you’re already thinking of where this technology is going to be in five years, or 10.

I see a lot more opportunity than what exists right now. I see us as making a lot of devices that end up bringing the geospatial industry into everybody’s lives in all sorts of different ways.

For example, most of the human beings on this planet do not have the money to travel. So you can scan in the real world, turn it into data, and then have virtual tourism where people can go into tunnels or hologram rooms and see whatever. So if they can pay $10 or something, and then go out on the weekend to Machu Picchu, or ancient Egypt, or Paris, or any of these places, then that’s very good for them. That’s a really, really wonderful thing. They’re able to taste like parts of the world that they previously couldn’t.

So it sounds like your vision is that holograms could be everywhere in 10 years.

Hologram technology will be everywhere, there’ll be a sudden wave that will hit.

Another example is restaurants. If you go to a restaurant right now like McDonald’s, you’ve got screens up above. But with holograms, you can project floating burgers, or have other food items spinning around.

And that’s not even directly related to geospatial technology. So Axiom Holographics is really taking everything you used to see at the geospatial conferences — photogrammetry, lidar scanning, the whole lot — and making the technology that enables people to use it all over the place. In education, everywhere.