The Image King
At first, Roger Holden’s amazing invention looked like — and at one time probably was — an upright video-game console, the kind that used to house Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man at mall arcades.
When Holden turned on the power, a ghostly sphere appeared in the air over its tilted, waist-high screen. The sphere hovered above the screen, fully dimensional but not quite substantial, real and not real. Holden called it a “construction of light,” one so real that you couldn’t help reaching out to touch it — but nothing was there.
That was four years ago.
These days, when Holden powers up his latest invention — he’s finishing a patent application for the new technology, which is the size of a small DVD player and sits on the floor of his downtown Lawrence office — a three-dimensional image of a Star Wars imperial fighter, oddly red, materializes in space a few inches above it. The fighter isn’t large, perhaps 3 inches by 4 inches, and, of course, the color is all wrong, and it isn’t really doing anything special, just hanging there … just hanging there in space … a three-dimensional image suspended in space.
The fighter immediately calls to mind the scene from Star Wars in which R2D2 projects a hologram — a shimmery, three-dimensional image in the air — of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia making her classic plea, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” The resemblance is more than casual. Holden was a member of the massive and utterly bedazzled audience for that landmark film. He credits the scene as part of his inspiration.
In 1977, the image beaming from R2D2’s head was as marvelous as the film’s light sabers and space dogfights, just one more example of George Lucas’ prodigious imagination. But today, Roger Holden intends to make 3-D image projection commonplace.
His original technology will soon be on the market, and it could radically change, forever, entertainment and telecommunications and who knows how many other industries.
“My main goal is to create a revolutionary holographic visual-display technology that will sweep the globe and become a multibillion-dollar industry,” Holden says. “Aim for the stars and you might at least hit a planet.”
Holden, who favors Hawaiian shirts and a fisherman’s cap, has aimed high several times in the past and hit at least the moon.
In the early 1980s, he invented a computerized camera-control system that producers used to animate the first five seasons of Reading Rainbow, the long-running PBS children’s series.
He did the work at Centron Productions, the commercial production house that for many years was the foundation of Lawrence’s film community. Centron’s 1950s black-and-white educational shorts (Why Study Home Economics?; Fire Safety Is Your Problem) were common classroom materials for young baby boomers, and years later some of the films enjoyed second lives as on-screen “experiments” on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Centron also produced hundreds of commercial and industrial films for a long list of Fortune 500 companies. Leo Beuerman, its 1969 documentary short about a fiercely independent disabled man who sold pencils on Massachusetts Street, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Reading Rainbow contract called for the company to produce seven-minute animated “feature book” segments that would be narrated by celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Gilda Radner.
“The one thing I am proudest of in my life is being a central pioneer on Reading Rainbow,” Holden tells the Pitch. The system he invented for the show, a then-revolutionary combination of an Atari 800 personal computer and an immense $40,000 Oxberry animation camera, robotized the animation photography process, permitting precise camera movements in a little more than half the time required for manual adjustments. It worked superbly, but it was also a complicated magnetic-tape system that required stacks of expensive, then-exotic technology.
Holden’s newest device is different. It’s conceptually simple. Holden estimates that the materials in the machine on his office floor cost three dollars. He’s been working on 3-D image projection for a decade — and not alone.
“Roger had the concept and asked me if I could build it,” says Robert Babcock, who co-invented the original technology. “It was completely experimental. I built a little apparatus that held mirrors in arbitrary positions and started making adjustments. … I made adjustment after adjustment after adjustment. I still remember the night I projected an image for the first time. Wow, it works!”
Babcock pays the bills as a Lawrence firefighter and EMT, but he’s a lifelong animation aficionado — “Animation is life, the rest is details,” he says — with a background in metalsmithing and graphic design. Soon after Holden developed the Reading Rainbow technology, Babcock walked through the door of Magic Visions (at the time Holden’s film and animation production shop) with a portfolio of drawings. Holden fired up the Oxberry on the spot and put Babcock to work on “The Baron Waste,” a three-minute pilot for an animated children’s show with an environmental theme. The two of them completed it in three weeks. They have collaborated ever since.
“He’s intense,” Babcock says of Holden. “He’s very intense.”
Holden’s bookshelves hold such titles as Higher Mathematics, Robots and Robotology, Conjurers’ Optical Secrets, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and a Carnival of Souls comic book. Barbarella decorates his office, as does Holden’s digital portrait of Louise Brooks, the silent-era bombshell from Cherryvale, Kansas, who inspired a generation of women to bob their hair. His usual manner is reserved, even reticent, but he brightens when talk turns to music and film. He has produced paintings, albums, animated films and videos, and he’ll pull out examples of all of them, carefully describing the production history of each work and the audience it reached.
“He’s definitely a visionary,” says Clint Brown, another Lawrence filmmaker with offices across the hall from Holden’s. “He’s one of those guys who has 50 complicated, creative ideas at any one time. And we know about three of them.”
How, exactly, Holden’s technology projects its images is a secret, but he grants that the effect is a sort of optical illusion involving curved mirrors. “It takes advantage of the physics of image formation by curved reflective surfaces, and how the brain perceives those images, to create a system for the generation of convincing holographic-like illusions,” he says of the device that’s given life to the fighter and other images, such as an eerie 3-D cartoon of a dog’s head perpetually swinging to and fro, pink tongue dangling in the air.
In other words, Holden says, “When we look every day into a flat mirror, we see an amazing yet simply produced full-color image of ourselves, complete with stereoscopic depth cues — in essence, a visual virtual reality appearing behind the mirror. We acclimate to these flat-surface reflections at an early age because we see them everywhere all the time. On the other hand, images formed by curved reflective surfaces are less common, and can be made to appear to float above the mirror’s surface.”
Three-dimensional technology isn’t new — classic holograms, of the kind we see on credit-card security strips, have been around for 50 years. But Holden’s simulates what’s called a “volumetric display,” the so-far unrealized, fully dimensional virtual-reality projections of the sort beloved by fans of Gene Roddenberry’s fictional holodeck. Like nearly all 3-D technology, Holden’s requires the viewer to sit in a “sweet spot” at a certain distance from the projector in order to get the full effect. Holden is careful to note that the projection is not a true volumetric display but is instead a “hologramlike image”: The effect is lost if the viewer changes perspective. Nonetheless, from the sweet spot the effect is startling — even breathtaking when you consider the possibility of technologies such as projection television.
Imagine C.S.I. ‘s Gil Grissom turning over dead bodies in our living rooms in glorious 3-D or American Idol contestants performing on the coffee table.
Projection television remains just out of reach, but Holden’s invention offers the prospect of mall kiosks with 3-D product displays and video phones projecting the 3-D image of an incoming caller’s face. Those are among the uses being explored by a high-tech marketing firm in London that is negotiating to bring the patented technology to market this year. The deal is not yet signed, and Holden prefers not to name the company, but he’s visibly excited at the prospect of seeing his technology available to a wide audience.
“There’s an infinity of applications, just as one would have if television were just invented,” Holden says. “There are possible applications in point-of-purchase advertising, video conferencing, entertainment, education, especially educational visualization. For example, in a science class, you could talk about a DNA molecule and then project it into space as a holographiclike image, rotate it and allow people to see its aspects much more clearly.”
All that and the transformation of popular culture.
Dimensionality is the new media frontier.
“That is the next step or perhaps the step after the next step,” says Robert Nunley, a cyber-pioneering professor emeritus at the University of Kansas who was Holden’s first technology mentor and counts himself as Holden’s “sounding board.”
Nunley says Holden’s machine is the next great breakthrough in media interactivity — and he would know. In the mid-1970s, Nunley headed a team at KU that developed one of the first computer monitors.
Holden had taken Nunley’s class and failed, but the professor offered him an opportunity to experiment with the equipment if he passed the course a second time around. “I had to find an inducement,” Nunley says. “I spent most of my time at KU working with honor students and flunk-outs. They’re amazingly similar.”
Nunley’s KU team was part of a multi-institutional effort funded by the National Science Foundation to jump-start digital imaging, and Holden was itching to play with the equipment that Nunley had in his lab. He passed the class.
So Holden was prepared when Star Wars sparked his imagination. Five years after he saw the film, crammed with ideas developed in a program of independent study under Nunley (he never finished his communications degree), Holden developed his camera-control system for Centron and opened Magic Visions, his independent film and animation shop. (In an example of life following art, Holden’s newest machine was among the technologies spotlighted in The Science of Star Wars, a three-hour special that ran last May on the Discovery Channel; the short segment devoted to Holden’s invention was hosted by actor Anthony Daniels, better known to two generations of fans as C-3PO.)
Nunley, like Holden, believes that technology enables its users to better realize their own potential. He sees Holden’s invention as a distinct step toward realizing that vision. “We have a 3-pound brain that’s done beautifully over the last few hundred thousand years,” he says. “We don’t know where we’re going, but we know we’re going somewhere.”
Nunley says the trouble with television is that it has made us couch potatoes —more passive than active. “We want people to be able to use digital means for use as an amplifier for your intelligence and your ability to express yourself.”
Holden’s work, Nunley theorizes, “gives us a chance to actually access the collective unconscious.”
Holden’s aerial-projection technology isn’t yet capable of dimensionalizing a conventional video signal — it can’t yet give us Gil Grissom. But, he says, it wouldn’t be especially difficult to create a signal — perhaps a cable TV channel — carrying video already modified for 3-D image projection. That technology already exists. And he thinks he’s close to Gil Grissom or — the example he prefers — a basketball game. He thinks he might be ready to project a 3-D version of a conventional video signal in a year or two.
“I’m getting close. I’m the type of person who, when I make a little bit of progress, I want to run to town square and tell the world, so I don’t want to overstate it, but I’m getting close.”
Even though Holden, now 53, was one of the earliest pioneers of digital animation, he is best-known around Lawrence as a musician and artist.
At the moment, he is a member of three very different bands: Uncle Dirtytoes, a long-established Celtic collective that once attracted the praise of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson; the Bopaphonics, which recently recorded an album based on the poetry of Langston Hughes; and the Border Band, a roots-rock outfit that has garnered international airplay on roots and blues radio shows.
These days, the Border Band occupies most of his musical attention. A raw four-piece fronted by Melvin Litton, the band released its third record, Hard West, last October and has received airplay on Bob Dylan’s Radio Hour on Sirius and on the nationally syndicated Blues Deluxe weekly radio show.
Although playing the Wichita-Lawrence-Kansas City circuit might strike some observers as less interesting than launching an interactive-media revolution, Holden sees them as different expressions of a creative and artistic ethic formed by 1960s counterculture and shaped by the music of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.
As Nunley puts it, “Roger is a quintessential hippie.”
He has been playing guitar since he was a youth on a farm in Wellsville. His first bandmates came out of Lawrence’s early Gaslight Tavern scene and included guitarist Clyde Moten, a descendent of jazz pianist and bandleader Bennie Moten. The Jolly Ranchers, Holden’s band in the early 1990s, played the first Day on the Hill.
Holden’s love of music and passion for digital technology permanently fused in the late 1970s, when (like so many early cyber musicians) he dived into the work of Todd Rundgren. “I was knocked out by the concerts, the concerts with Utopia, by the music,” Holden recalls. “And Rundgren was a futurist. In the early 1980s, he was telling the music industry that the next big development would be marrying music and video.”
Holden took that message to heart.
A long-standing interest in William S. Burroughs and an acquaintance with James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime manager, led to “Rub Out the Word,” a 1988 video tribute to Burroughs that featured Lawrence-shot images accompanying one of Burroughs’ early spoken-word performances. The project took more than two months. Burroughs’ initial response was characteristically ambiguous.
“He watched it twice,” Holden recalls, “and he said, ‘Very interesting.'”
“Rub Out the Word” aired on Night Flight, the USA Network’s trippy predecessor to MTV. It was part of the “Take-Off to Politics” episode that ran the weekend before the 1988 election and included videos by R.E.M. (“Talk About the Passion”) and Midnight Oil (“Dreamworld”). Two years later, it migrated to MTV and was included in Buzz, the network’s avant-garde video show.
In 1990, Holden signed a licensing agreement with Coretta Scott King to produce a music-video tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in the style of a Reading Rainbow book segment set to music. The song, “Some Long Years Ago,” Holden’s own composition, was arranged by Stan Sheldon and performed by Common Ground’s Neville Brown. The visuals were King-inspired artwork from Lawrence and Kansas City artists (including Grandma Layton); celebrated Lawrence artist and professor Roger Shimomura dedicated his senior painting class to the project. The video won awards in 1991 and 1992 at the International Black History Month Film and Video Festival.
“Stoney Jackson, the media coordinator for the King Center in Atlanta, took my idea to Mrs. King, opened the doors for us, and then died in a bike accident while we were recording the song at Red House recording studio,” Holden says. “He never saw it.”
Burroughs and Holden later became close friends. Holden converted parts of 15 of the author’s paintings into stereograms — wallpaperlike patterns that reveal 3-D images after sustained viewing. Holden originally intended to conceal an entire painting in the pattern of each stereogram, but Burroughs convinced him instead to collect random samples from each painting and make each creation an experiment.
“I call it cybernetic cut-ups,” Holden says, invoking Burroughs’ noted compositional technique, “the use of techniques of control to produce random outcomes.” The Los Angeles County Museum of Art included one of the stereograms in its 1996 retrospective of Burroughs’ art, Ports of Entry. Holden is especially pleased that his work made it into the show’s exhaustively researched catalog, “right there with Keith Haring,” as he puts it.
Burroughs expressed his highest form of approval by giving Holden two of his precious cats. In his journals, just before his death, Burroughs wrote that one of them, “Marigay” (the Searing White Light of Truth), a white, 13-pound brawler, was his “familiar” — a spirit companion. Holden called the cat “Butch.” He considered himself not Butch’s owner but his caretaker and in 1997 nursed the cat through a bout of feline leukemia with essiac tea and vitamin C after his veterinarian told him the cat would be dead in three months. Butch lasted until last spring. The cat still looms in his owner’s life; Holden has just launched a new company, for “personal” work, called Whitecat Productions.
He follows the news and is distressed by the state of the world and of the nation. “I’m concerned by the consolidation of media outlets,” Holden says. “I’m concerned by the ongoing loss of individual liberties. I’m concerned about wars being promoted by the cabal that runs the country.” Turning inward, Holden has recently reacquainted himself with the work of Alan Watts, the great 1960s popularizer of Eastern philosophy and an early voice in the human-potential movement. Holden was introduced to Watts in his youth; he has returned to his writings with the perspective of adulthood. “He brings things down to a practical level, to the level of day-to-day life. He reminds me that we cannot have hot without cold, bright without dark, good without evil.”
Holden often spends evenings working on his music or listening to KU’s student radio station, KJHK 90.7. He is aware of, and excited by, the “new musical energy” he senses in the Lawrence scene, but he doesn’t hit the clubs as often as he’d like. “I’m devoting most of my musical energy to my own projects, and that leaves less time to explore all the other interesting things that are happening right now,” he says.
But he still has enough time to help out the next generation of media pioneers.
Across the hall from the office where his little invention sits on the floor, Holden is designing another 3-D technology.
Bad Haircut Productions, a video production house, is located three steps from 21st Century Sound and Vision. Bad Haircut is Clint Brown, 27, and his 23-year-old brother, Dillon. The two skilled filmmakers are working with Holden on what they call the JellyCam.
Whereas Holden’s small black box projects dimensionalized images in space, the JellyCam creates a 3-D effect in conventional video images on a flat screen — television and film images similar to those visible through the red-and-blue lens of 3-D glasses. But the JellyCam requires no glasses and produces its more convincing effects with off-the-shelf technology.
A viewer can sit anywhere, and the images can be projected on anything — say, the wall of the Bad Haircut office. What’s playing at the moment is a 20-second clip of Dillon Brown walking up a short flight of stairs in a nearby parking lot. Next to the stairs are a brick wall and a tree; in the background, traffic on Vermont Street is visible.
The clip is the first JellyCam experiment. The dimensional effect is not immediately apparent in Brown’s image. But the edge of the brick wall, the banister and a tree limb seem to hop from the screen. (It’s not quite a leap.) The tree limb appears to be clearly in front of the background images.
“That’s the first time we tried it,” Holden says matter-of-factly. He doesn’t seem at all surprised that the technique worked on the first attempt. “It’s getting better all the time.”
Holden and his collaborators have decided to concentrate their early efforts on fun and games.
“By the end of the year, we hope to have demonstration footage from local sporting events,” Clint Brown says. “Maybe from a college basketball game or a high school football game. Sometime next year, once we have sports footage, we can start showing it to the people who do the major sporting events — the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, events that draw big production budgets. Then, I think it’s only a matter of months before we see it out there. It enables some really cool 3-D playback possibilities” — as in a basketball appearing to fly off the court and into the living room or a game-winning field goal soaring over the crossbar and seemingly out of the television (the TV you already own) toward your lap.
Clint Brown is confident enough in this technology to worry that some viewers will find it unsettling; thus, the initial focus is on sports replays instead of the whole game. “I think it’s the kind of effect that can be overused,” he says. “Especially in these kinds of events, games where very big men are colliding in a small vision field.”
But there’s one place where too much is never enough: entertainment. Clint says the technology will be of most interest to filmmakers and music video producers. “Something like this in an MTV video will knock your socks off,” he says.
Clint’s impassive engineer’s delivery belies the extraordinary possibilities of the technology, but he’s aware of its potency. “It’s exciting to be part of something that can potentially change the history of television. We might end up in textbooks — a footnote, maybe.”
Holden is from a family of long-established Johnson County farmers who raised wheat, corn and soybeans, but he was born in West Hollywood, and film is in his blood. His mother, Bernice — “my greatest inspiration,” he says — worked as a Hollywood domestic while pursuing a songwriting deal. He spent his first five years living in the guest house on the estate of actress Selene Royle, who turned a successful stage career into an MGM contract and appeared in more than 30 films in the 1940s and early 1950s; she was well-known during the war years for having founded the Stage Door Canteen on Broadway.
“Her father wrote the Broadway play that Cecil B. DeMille and Sam Goldwyn turned into Hollywood’s first successful feature movie in 1914, The Squaw Man,” Holden says. “The irony being that she was this patriotic, caring woman who was later falsely persecuted by Joseph McCarthy and Hollywood for being a communist sympathizer.”
Royle admired Bernice’s torchy music and arranged for her to cut a demo side for Capitol Records with legendary arranger Elmer Bernstein, but she never got a contract, and Bernice brought Holden and his sister back to Kansas when Holden was 5. (Royle, who ignored the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoena she received, later abandoned Hollywood in disgust and moved with her husband to Mexico.)
Holden was a founder and the long-time president of the Kansas Film Society, until the group handed over its activities to the Kansas Film Commission in 1991. His film pursuits continue — he has long lobbied for a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for Lillian St. Cyr, the female lead in The Squaw Man and a reservation-born Winnebago who performed under the name “Princess Red Wing” and was probably the first Native American movie star.
But he politely declines to discuss Godzilla: 3-D to the Max, an IMAX film announced last year, citing confidentiality obligations to the Japanese producers. He is listed in press materials as a co-producer.
When the project was announced, the budget was said to be $9 million, making it one of the most expensive IMAX films ever made. Online chatter said the film would feature an American cast and include a climactic battle set in Las Vegas. Holden will say about the production only that his involvement to date has been minimal and that the “3-D” of the title has nothing to do with his aerial-image-projection systems or the JellyCam. “It won’t use my technology,” he says.
Holden’s realm, then, is a not-too-distant place in which video signals enter our homes and feed JellyCam 3-D images into our televisions while video phones project 3-D images of our callers into our kitchens. Perhaps by then, kids will be watching his work on Reading Rainbow in 3-D.
Perhaps by then, we’ll all be living in the world that Holden carries around in his head right now. His track record encourages optimism, dating all the way back to that day in 1977 when he entered a movie theater and saw Princess Leia beaming from R2D2’s dome.
“I think back to seeing that scene, and I remember thinking to myself, Someday, someday I’m going to take the same technology Dr. Nunley and his team developed and couple it with optics or with electronics, and I’m going to do that.”