Volograms: Making Beckett come to life with augmented reality

TCD spinout’s technology could enable us to generate a projection of ourselves

Volograms’ technology allowed the viewer to walk up close and around the actors in 360 degrees. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Volograms’ technology allowed the viewer to walk up close and around the actors in 360 degrees. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

 

Fans of Samuel Beckett are likely not enamoured with the fact that Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek and other tech entrepreneur-oriented bestsellers lifted the “fail better” quote from a pretty bleak text and turned it into a glib Silicon Valley inspirational quote. But just because Beckett had a dark worldview doesn’t mean he didn’t love to work with technology.

In fact, the playwright was something of an innovator, says Nicholas Johnson, Beckett scholar and assistant professor in the Department of Drama at Trinity College Dublin. Johnson says he likes to think Beckett would have approved of an augmented reality (AR) version of the 1963 work Play that debuted last week, using unique motion capture technology developed by Trinity spinout Volograms.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but upon arrival I was greeted by the sight of a couple of people walking around wearing AR headsets. Where was the play? It turns out they were watching it. Volograms co-founder and chief operating officer Konstantinos Amplianitis explained that the headset wearers were experiencing different, separate versions of Play, which had been directed by Johnson and captured as a dynamic 3D scan of the actors.

People getting sucked into Beckett’s Play thanks to Volograms at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Chris Bellew /Fennell Photography
People getting sucked into Beckett’s Play thanks to Volograms at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Chris Bellew /Fennell Photography

Obviously, I needed to try it out. The headset allows you to walk around the three actors (agitated talking heads in urns, just how Beckett liked). As you turn your gaze on one, it begins to talk, move your line of sight to another head and they start to speak. As the viewer your gaze controls the narrative and therefore becomes part of the experience. I imagine this non-linear flow of the play works as a Beckettian device; you walk away from it having experienced a unique version and can make of it what you will.

What was most impressive was the detail of the actors’ faces, allowing the viewer to walk up close and around the urns in 360 degrees, seeing Play in a way it has never been experienced before. Johnson said to the audience that had Beckett been there, he might have sat quietly in a corner, keeping to himself, but he would have enjoyed it all the same.

“We were really happy to see the reaction from the Trinity drama department,” says Volograms chief executive Rafael Pagés. “Beckett was always innovating and adapting his work to new fields, so we like thinking that he would have been our biggest supporter.”

“We have been very lucky to participate in a project like this, which involves technology, creativity and art. The project is as a collaboration between V-Sense, a leading visual computing research group at Trinity, the Trinity Centre for Beckett Studies, and Volograms.”

Commercial level

Now settled in the Guinness Enterprise Centre, Volograms – although only one year old – has raised €850,000 with the support of Atlantic Bridge ventures through the University Bridge Fund and Enterprise Ireland. These funds were used to build the team and to bring the technology to a commercial level.

And a vologram isn’t simply a 3D head: “A vologram is a digital volumetric representation of a human performance,” explains Pagés. “In other words: we film a person talking or acting, and then we create a dynamic 3D scan of him or her.”

“One of the biggest misconceptions we face is that people think we 3D scan a static person and then an artist animates it, which is not the case: we capture the performance as it is, with every little detail, and it is done automatically,” he adds.

“We are now taking an extra step and making this technology available to other studios. We are pitching our vision to investors so they can help us make it a reality.”

Vologram tech doesn’t require a headset. The start-up has also worked with Virtual Reality Ireland to create an AR tourism app for visitors to Manorhamilton Castle in Co Leitrim. Using the tablet supplied, visitors will “see” the stern looking ghost of Sir Frederick Hamilton pop up and tell them a little bit about the history of the castle.

Rafael Pagès with his vologram at Trinity College Dublin
Rafael Pagès with his vologram at Trinity College Dublin

I ask Pagés if he has his own vologram. “Of course I do. We all do,” he says with a laugh. Then he takes out his phone, opens the app, at which point a mini Rafael pops up. This is what many smartphone owners would love, I say. A little vologram of themselves to take selfies with.

“Our volograms are compatible with Snapchat and Instagram. This means that you can capture somebody with our tech, and you don’t need an augmented or virtual reality headset, or to download a specific app, you can directly see them and share them within Snapchat or Instagram.”

“For example, if you are a brand who wants to show a vologram of a celebrity or a brand ambassador, we can create a Snapchat AR lens or an Instagram AR effect featuring that celebrity, so all your followers can take a picture next to him or her, and share it with their network,” he adds.

“For now, we think that phones and tablets are the easiest and more accessible way to experience this content, but the future is definitely AR headsets that will look more like conventional glasses.”

How can we get our own vologram?

“If you wanted to get one we would bring you into the studio and film you with 12 cameras pointing at you from different viewpoints,” says Pagés.

“With these videos, we would be able to run our 3D reconstruction algorithms that generate a sequence of 3D models, 30 per second of video. Lastly, we take all those 3D models and compress them so you can play with it, integrate it into your own application, and share it on social media.”

With a Beckett play and a tourism app under their belt, Pagés says the next step is to bring volumetric video capture closer to everyone, making it more accessible. It’s already one step ahead of other companies in the same field because a vologram requires a low number of cameras to create its 3D captures.

“Unlike some other studios that use more than 100 cameras for 3D capture, ours lowers the barriers to entry for professionals. The key challenge for the company for the next year is not doing more projects ourselves, but to enable others to do projects using our technology.”

So, no trying again or failing again for Volograms because they seem to be doing very well indeed. To utterly misquote Beckett, they must go on, they can go on, they’ll go on.

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