Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, and buy some bananas

 Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, and buy some bananas
This is truly a "you have to see it to appreciate it" type of thing, photos do it no justice. That box of toothpaste looks like its floating about 3 feet in front of the kiosk if you are there in person.

PORTLAND, Ore. - The errand started innocently enough: a quick trip to the nearby Fred Meyer department store for some diapers and other sundry items.

But after walking in the front door, I stopped in my rain-soaked tracks. In front of me loomed a rotating bunch of bananas.

And then a cantaloupe and a box of toothpaste.
 
Big deal, you say, never been to a Fred Meyer store before? Maybe I should get out more?

I probably should, but the items I was seeing were actual rotating, moving, reach-out-and-try-to-touch-them holograms. And at a Fred Meyer store no less, not exactly the bastion of cutting-edge tech (1080p 46-inch LCD TVs on sale for $799, however).

I, and a clutch of other shoppers, stood transfixed, voicing quiet “whoas…..” under our breath as if we’d just seen Laurence Fishburne make that impossible leap from the roof of a tall building in The Matrix.

There was no one there to explain the appearance of the holographic produce, just a big yellow box that said “3DEO” on it and a couple of attached touch screens.

I’ve been to CES many times to see the latest and greatest and seen a lot of cool video trickery, including a Phillips 3D TV that needs no special glasses.

I’m jaded, but this was a true traffic stopper, made even more ironic by its placement between the holiday poinsettias for sale and the discount CD rack.

I shot a quick cell-phone photo of the name plate on the back of the magic box and then spent time talking with Curt Thornton, CEO of Provision, a California company that is making the hologram machines appear at Fred Meyer stores around the Portland area and eventually the whole of the Northwest.

Founded in 2001, Provision has been distilling down the technology to create the holograms and now has their 3D technology in 600 locations worldwide, with more to come. Many more, most likely.

Thornton was clear to differentiate his holographic creation from the more common 3D imagery we have seen in recent movie releases. No special glasses are needed to see these holograms.

Thornton said the system can make objects – most any object – appear to be floating in space about 3 feet in front of the kiosk.

Standing six feet from the front of the kiosk, the effect is almost beyond description. Suffice to say it is science fiction made real. It helps that the objects move, turn and change appearance. These are not still shots per se.

Thornton calls the phenomenon “detached” projection and it looks like it dropped right out of Star Wars, Minority Report, A.I. or the numerous other science fiction tales that most of us have seen.

The objects are decidedly mid-res for now (1078 x 768), but they are in color, and when they rotate, you see every side of the object. The bananas were especially convincing.

The best spot to see the hologram is in a narrow viewing angle (about 60 degrees wide) in front of the machine, you still can’t waltz around the image at your leisure.

At present, the hologram stations are being used to shill common consumer goods, like the aforementioned toothpaste and bananas.

Customers marvel at the holographic box of toothpaste and then, according to Thornton, they should proceed to the touch screens on the kiosks and print out some in-store coupons to buy the real thing.

Except that’s not how it’s working out so far.

Thornton said that some consumers had the same experience I had. They are so blown away by the holograms that they then walk slack-jawed right by the kiosk to go shopping - without a thought of printing out a coupon.

That’s exactly what I did, no discounted Crest for me.

Well, admittedly, I pressed my face against the dark-tinted glass for a moment to see if could spot the technological Oz behind the holographic curtain, but the insides looked like a mashup consisting of video camera guts, a bar code scanner, a TV screen, and some other likely patented black-ops bits.

Thornton said staffers spend a lot of time cleaning finger and nose prints off the glass plates of the kiosks, so I guess I’m not the only curious wirehead out there.

He also said there was going to be more signage to remind shoppers the kiosk is there to actually print coupons, not just dazzle holiday-weary consumers.

Thornton said he founded his company in hopes of shrinking the multi-million dollar hologram displays you see at theme parks into something a little smaller and affordable.

Which begs the obvious question: when can I buy one for my home theater system?

Not in the near, near future according to Thornton. Creating the imagery files for the holograms is still a labor-intensive affair, so making a full-blown movie is still outside the fiscally possible (and perhaps technically) realm – CNN’s 37-camera green-screen “holograms” aside. But that will certainly change in time.

The near-term killer app for a home version according to Thornton: video games.

First-person shooters like Crysis et al are a natural match for home hologram implementation, Thornton said. The games are developed in 3D and high-definition (and soon in higher-than-HD resolutions) and then dumbed down for play on your 2D monitor. Do the math.

Coupled with advanced versions of Provisons’ video hologram technology, it could change the way gamers see and play games.

Thornton and I agreed that the technology could seep into other applications. How about a high-res hologram of that vintage camera you’re looking at on eBay? An automated 3D imaging capture station and an affordable desktop projector hooked up to your computer could make it happen – and soon.

For now, Thornton said Provision is in the “momentum phase” of their product rollout, but big things may be coming soon.

Thornton hinted at a possible product rollout with a “national chain of coffee shops” (who could that be??) and increased interest from other retailers as well.

For now, Freddies is the flag-bearer for Provision in the Northwest, with a machine in every Portland-area store, and more to come around the region.

The future of the technology is blue-sky. The system could easily scale up in size and resolution to project a full-size image of a person.

Imagine the telepresence/videoconferencing possibilities, or the platoons of perfectly formed cyber pitch-persons assailing you everywhere you go, a la Minority Report.

Thornton said he doesn’t see a backlash against holographic advertising - at least not yet.

He said the response has been overwhelmingly positive and hidden-camera videos on the company’s Web site attest to the jaw-dropping amazement and interest a simple rotating cluster of holographic bananas can have on shoppers.

As for me, I’m now finding all kinds of excuses to head over to my local Freddies.

Are we out of diapers yet, honey?

Bill Roberson is a KATU.com / Fisher Interactive Networks Web producer specializing in technology stories and issues. He can be reached at broberson@fisherinteractive.com.