The ARHT Media studio in the downtown Boston WeWork building is configured for videoconferencing. There are comfy chairs, monitors aplenty, and even a technician, Billy Smith, to make sure everything goes smoothly.
“If you’re all ready, I’m going to beam Larry in now,” said Smith.
Suddenly, after a flourish of pixels on a black mesh screen and a whooshing sound effect, there was Larry O’Reilly — or, at least, a lifelike rendering of him, floating in midair. This was no Zoom call; the CEO of ARHT was “beaming in” to Boston from Toronto for an interview with the Globe using the hologram-like technology that his company developed.
“This is a rather efficient way to travel,” said O’Reilly. But is it the future of videoconferencing?
To be sure, his likeness was not completely realistic. He appeared overly radiant and a bit too tall. (The display, he explained, is typically used for larger stages, when the audience is seated further back.) He was not even technically a hologram, which would be completely 3D, but rather a life-size, two-dimensional projection that ARHT has dubbed “holographic telepresence.”
But the awkwardness of Zoom meetings — the “Brady Bunch” box effect, the audio lag that muddles conversation — was mostly absent. Indeed, the goal for Toronto-based ARHT, which set up its rentable Boston studio as part of a broader partnership with WeWork a little over a year ago, is for the technology to fade into the background.
“Your brain starts telling you that I’m there with you in the room,” said O’Reilly, “and that’s what is so dramatically different than traditional video-streaming.”
While ARHT has been doing live transmissions since 2014, it is now capitalizing on a post-pandemic embrace of virtual communication. In June, the company arranged for a holographic projection of Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to appear at four European tech festivals. Last August, a wedding made headlines when a groom hired ARHT so one of his bride’s best friends could give a toast via the service.
The main purpose of the technology, O’Reilly said, is to reduce travel costs while also offering companies a better chance to secure sought-after speakers for events. The company counts NATO, Novartis, AT&T, Columbia University, and Gucci among its clients.
There is also, of course, the “wow” factor, reminiscent of sci-fi films like “Star Wars,” that Zoom and Google Meet don’t exactly elicit.
“Because of the entertainment value, because of the interaction, and because it was so unique and new, everybody’s paying attention,” said O’Reilly.
So, how does it work? The system in Boston, called the H-Series, is a modular setup used mostly for larger events. In Toronto, a 4K camera captured O’Reilly in front of a green screen. The images and audio traveled to ARHT’s server, where it was compressed, encrypted, and played back in Boston on a highly reflective mesh screen. Monitors in Toronto allowed O’Reilly to see himself and the Boston participants.
This setup is not the only option for the hologram-curious. Earlier this year, ARHT introduced the “Capsule,” which displays images in a box with a touch screen, meant for trade shows and retail settings. During the pandemic, the company rolled out a “Virtual Global Stage,” where people in different locations are placed on a virtual set to interact with one another.
And ARHT isn’t the only company hawking holograms. Last month, Google announced it would expand testing of Project Starline, a “magic window” that creates the illusion that participants are together in a room. California-based Proto recently debuted a 29-inch-tall holographic display device for $6,900.
At ARHT, too, “beaming in” carries quite the bill. To rent a two-way setup of the H-Series at sites of your choosing will run you $25,000. (If both users are WeWork members, it’s $3,500 for a three-hour booking using any of the 18 WeWork sites outfitted with the technology.)
The cost is the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of hologram technology, said Thomas W. Malone, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
“My prediction would be that the time when holographic representations will really take off is the same time when video-conferencing really took off, which is when the price is approximately zero,” said Malone, the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.
ARHT intends to drive down the cost of its technology, said O’Reilly. In 2018, to rent the two-way setup would have been $85,000. Technicians, he added, will mostly be unnecessary down the line, which means less overhead. “With all technologies, over time, the cost of delivery goes down,” he said.
ARHT raised $10 million in private funding in February. O’Reilly estimated that 30 to 40 organizations have rented the equipment in the Boston WeWork over the past several months. Pharmaceutical companies, financial services, and higher education are some of the biggest markets for ARHT.
“The good news for our company is the macro trends are all coming our way,” said O’Reilly. “People want to reduce their travel costs, people are now embracing technology to communicate. ... Organizations are looking to reduce their carbon footprint.”
When the interview was over, there was no red “end call” button to press. “Maybe somebody could just beam me out?” said O’Reilly.
And then, as quickly as he appeared, the towering apparition vanished, no hologram fatigue to speak of.
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.