Appearances like those in “Star Trek” remain science fiction for now, but the mobile operator O2 wants to take a step in this direction in a few years.
According to plans by the mobile phone provider Telefónica (O2), hologram phone calls, in which the person you are speaking to can be seen as a three-dimensional image, should be available in 2026.
“The product should be ready for the market in two to three years,” said Telefónica Deutschland’s head of technology, Mallik Rao, to the German Press Agency in Munich. Then you will have integrated the technology into your own system and tested it sufficiently. “We want to start with corporate customers and, in a second step, also offer it to the mass market.”
O2 is currently testing holography, which uses virtual reality (VR) glasses, on its campus in Munich, where the company is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its network on Monday. This started in Germany in 1998 under the then company name Viag Interkom. Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU) is expected as a guest and will make a hologram phone call.
Industry is working on standards
A project by the German mobile phone network operators Telekom, Vodafone and O2 as well as the French company Orange and the Japanese technology start-up Matsuko has been running since last year to define standards for connections between the networks. This should make it possible for holography to be possible not only within a network, but across networks, for example from an O2 customer to a Vodafone customer.
Mobile operators are working separately to enable holography in their network. We are making good progress, says O2 innovation manager Karsten Erlebach. “We are conducting the first hologram conferences as a test, but the technology still needs to be further developed.” The 5G radio standard is important for holography, but it is also possible with a fiber optic landline.
And the competition? A Vodafone spokesman says they are testing the everyday viability of hologram telephony with Matsuko: “We recently conducted an intercontinental hologram telephone call between participants in Great Britain, Canada and the USA under live conditions for the first time with other partners.” A Telekom spokeswoman says they are researching and testing the technology. “But there is still some way to go before hologram technology is ready for the market.”
Different types of holography
There are different holographic versions. In the most advanced version, the caller puts on virtual reality glasses and then sees a 3D image of the person being called looking into their smartphone or tablet. A camera records him. Matsuko software uses the recordings to develop a 3D image that appears in the caller’s VR glasses. However, the person being called does not see the other person in 3D. It is possible that both callers put on VR glasses and both have a 3D image in front of them. Both images can then be seen with VR glasses, so their eyes are covered.
Another type of holography is used in group conversations or conferences. People look into tablets or smartphones without glasses and see the participants in the conversation on their screen as if these images were sitting in front of them – in the same room on the other side of the table. This is supposed to appear three-dimensional, but the effect is likely to be limited due to the lack of VR glasses.
According to Erlebach, a bandwidth of 20 megabits per second is required to transmit a hologram. “This is feasible and less than is needed when streaming high-resolution 4K films.” In order for the 3D image to be seen smoothly, 35 images per second must be transmitted – this is easily possible with “5G standalone” – i.e. pure 5G without 4G technology.
O2 and Bitkom see great potential
But does holography actually have what it takes to become a mass phenomenon – or is it only for proven technology fans? Erlebach is convinced of the potential. In the beginning, companies in particular would probably take advantage and organize virtual meetings in which holograms could convey a feeling of closeness.
The digital association Bitkom also emphasizes the advantages of the technology. “Communication with people who are in other places becomes more realistic through hologram telephony,” says Head of Consumer Technology, Sebastian Klöß. Holograms could give the impression that the other person is in the same room, even if they are somewhere else. “This promotes cross-location collaboration in a professional context as well as personal contact with friends and family.” Facial expressions and gestures could be better conveyed. “The technology offers the opportunity to enable a more emotional, realistic exchange even over long distances,” says Klöß.
For a strong three-dimensional flair you will need VR glasses, so additional equipment is necessary. It costs. The providers include Microsoft, Meta and Apple. The price of Meta Quest 3 is more than 500 euros. “The quality of the glasses improves from model to model, and the prices tend to fall,” says Erlebach.
In his opinion, holograms, as we know them from “Star Trek”, “Star Wars” and other science fiction films, are still a thing of the future. In such works, images of people suddenly appear in the middle of the room and are clearly visible to everyone, even without VR glasses. You can illuminate fog or gauze – transparent material – from below in such a way that three-dimensional images are created, says O2 manager Erlebach. “But that is very expensive.” Such tools are therefore not suitable for the introduction of holography in telecommunications. “That’s something for visual effects on stage shows, but not for face-to-face conversations.”