Looking Glass: Invented GIF’s 3D successor

Looking Glass is endeavoring to make holograms effortlessly portable. CompuServe raised the GIF on June 15th, 1987, as a way to share images — or animated series of pictures — anywhere.

The excellent portability of the late Steve Wilhite’s “graphics interchange format” made it the perfect canvas for viral memes.

“Imagine we’re in a similar universe, and each movie ever plugged was shot in color, but every human being was managing in black and white,” says Looking Glass co-founder and CEO Shawn Frayne. “That’s the case we’re in with 3D.”

If you add up all the CG flicks, video game screenshots, 3D models, portrait way photos — and NFTs — there are hundreds of trillions of 3D content that we only ever experience in 2D.

His holographic display company introduces the Looking Glass Block: a new photo format that lets you peek within a 3D scene, even if you’re considering it on a regular flat screen. It’s constructed on web standards to view them in any modern web browser, like a GIF or JPEG.

With Blocks, you swipe or mouse over the “image” to acquire a parallax 3D effect, allowing you “see” 3D depth. So, for example, you can open up an internet browser in a VR headset, then click an Enter VR button to be hauled to a virtual room where you can review it in complete stereoscopic 3D. It’s like you’re in a little art gallery.

You can Alex create a bunch of your work in Blender, generating a final 3D scene you could glide through like a video game. But because we don’t have an excellent way to share that on the web, he generally keeps taking a flat 2D picture or an animated GIF of his work.

Look closely as you slowly drag a mouse or finger across the image. See how it pauses with each step? Every Block is made from as numerous as 100 slices of a 3D scene, each piece a picture “shot” from a different perspective. That also indicates your device has to pack all of those images by the time you scroll, so it’s not precisely bandwidth-cheap. Frayne tells a Block might be 2MB or 50MB if designed for 8K viewing.

In many modes, the technologies on display here are nothing new. For example, using parallax to create the illusion of 3D on a 2D screen is an old technique that gets trotted out as a gimmick every decade. Nevertheless, you could download apps for early smartphones that showed off the idea, and Amazon even attempted to sell an entire phone around the notion. Facebook also does a parallax 3D trick if you upload portrait mode photos.

You can even discover such things on the web if you look hard enough. Frayne says Blocks are constructed atop hundreds of available web standards — most prominently WebXR.

What potentially makes Blocks unique is that they live in a container that can scale to any resolution device anywhere and be shared quickly. Just text an individual a link or embed an HTML code block in your site, and they can also experience it.

“We believe this is the absent element,” says Frayne. So, today, the company’s extending a pilot program where 3D creators can sign up to turn their content into Blocks, starting with items built in Unity, Blender, and Unreal. It’ll strike open beta this summer.

For now, 3D-to-Block transformation is a bit of a process. I understand things like “user-friendly documentation” are still on the roadmap. The company does own plug-ins for Blender, Unity, and Unreal, but Alex had to offer his work to Looking Glass for final mastering, and the company would only do that portion of the process off the record.

Over time, Looking Glass says it’ll extend to “C4D, Procreate, Zbrush, nerfies… even iPhone and Android portrait-mode photos.” In addition, Frayne says the company has exact prototyped holographic video content. So, for example, you could manage a stereoscopic 3D trailer for the next Avatar flick on the Avatar homepage and gain multiple perspectives on the action.

If you haven’t picked up on it, you are pretty excited about it. But the one thing you can’t figure out, and you will be not sure Looking Glass has figured out, is the business model. Frayne acknowledges the strength of Blocks is in spreading them across the open web, but he’s also apparent that Looking Glass will be the one hosting the scope — so Blocks are a little speck more like a YouTube embed than a JPEG or GIF that you can host anywhere.

But Looking Glass is scheduling for this to be a business and not just a way to market more of its holographic displays, of which there are now approximately 20,000 in the world. “There will be some components of this that are paid,” says Frayne, adding that he’s expecting to have conversations with creators while the pilot program about how monetization might work.

For those who do own an actual Looking Glass display, it’s a product we’ve been following for years, scanning as it morphed from a big box to an open prism to more of a container again and, most recently, a small vertical display designed to let you see your portrait mode smartphone photos in 3D. Frayne indicates his holographic displays will be the best mode to view Blocks for some time to come. But while he isn’t marketing those displays at a loss, he admits his 50-person company isn’t yet profitable. He believes holographic software could evolve a second “flywheel” to expand the business.