“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” That was the call of desperation from an imprisoned Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie. She was just 12 inches tall at the time, and she wasn’t even really there—she was a hologram. In the real world, holograms haven’t quite yet reached that level, but they’re getting close.

New file conversion and printing technologies are able to turn 3D renderings and plans from BIM programs into holographic images, giving architects a new way to visualize projects, from the design stage to construction. Printed onto a thin, rollable photographic film, holograms appear to jump off the page, offering a more immediate way of understanding the spatial implications of design.

The technology is being developed by Austin, Texas–based Zebra Imaging. The company has been working on the idea for several years, although architectural renderings originally weren’t the intended application. Like many emerging technologies, Zebra’s holograms first gained a foothold in the military world. The original hologram work was creating 3D maps of urban areas that members of the U.S. military could use to orient themselves and navigate in unfamiliar combat zones.

“We were imaging cities like Baghdad,” says Zebra Imaging co-founder and chief technology officer Michael Klug. “From the urban planning component and even down to the individual structure representation, it’s pretty straightforward” to make the transition into civilian architecture.

Klug and the rest of the Zebra team are banking on that connection as they introduce their production-scale printing process to the market this fall. They hope to integrate their technology into the day-to-day workings of architectural firms. To that end, Zebra has been working with six architecture firms to produce pilot holograms of buildings: CollinsWoerman, Gehry Partners, Gensler, Leo A Daly, MulvannyG2 Architecture, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Zebra is trying to get a feel for how architects could use this technology and how it can best represent different stages of architectural design.

“I think it’s one of the most unique technologies that’s come out recently,” says Dennis Shelden, chief technology officer at Gehry Technologies, the tech arm of Gehry Partners. “There’s something about the way it allows you to understand the spatial nature of the thing that I think is really interesting.”

“It skirts that realm of media and movies,” notes Hraztan Zeitlian, director of design for Leo A Daly’s Los Angeles office. “It brings that excitement of the entertainment technology into architecture, which is really thrilling.”

Though the holograms produced by Zebra for the firms have been mainly experimental, the architects involved are already plotting out how they’ll use them. For the most part, they are seen as a new element of the presentation process, offering clients a vivid and detailed view of the proposed design. Some foresee holograms being used in promotional materials once buildings have been completed and are on the market.

Zebra Imaging's holograms for the AEC sector are reflection holograms: When illuminated from above, what first looks like plain black film communicates its 3D effect.
Zebra Imaging Zebra Imaging's holograms for the AEC sector are reflection holograms: When illuminated from above, what first looks like plain black film communicates its 3D effect.

Gehry Technologies mainly has been using the holograms for internal communication of design ideas among architects, engineers, and construction specialists. The holograms also are helping them determine whether some designs are even feasible to construct. “The use of the technology for us in design is not so much about the aesthetics, or the spatial aspects of the building, as much as it is about the realization,” Shelden says. While simple monochromatic holograms once took days or even weeks for Zebra to print, multicolor and multichannel holograms now can be printed in a matter of hours. Though the cost to print a single 36-by-24-inch hologram panel can reach $3,500, the price point is becoming competitive with the cost of a physical model. For some elaborate models, a hologram is actually the cheaper option.

“Physical models and representations of architectural models can take a lot of time to produce—usually a couple of weeks of some poor associate architect’s time,” Klug says. “These holograms are produced very rapidly.”

Because of the increasing efficiency of hologram printing and the high costs of model-making, some of the architects involved in the pilot predict there’ll be a hologram display in most architectural presentations eventually. “Holograms will probably be used, I would guess, more so than physical models,” says Reg Prentice, the regional applications manager at Gensler. “But I’d also be pretty certain that physical models aren’t going to go away by any means. They’ll always have their place.”

Zebra is now working on a dynamic display that will show animated holograms that change before the viewer’s eyes, like a 3D video that seemingly enters real space—but without 3D glasses (or R2-D2). The technology could even enable architects to change their BIM models and produce updated hologram displays on the fly. It’s still a few years off and probably will emerge first in the military realm. Even so, architects seem happy with the functionality they’ve seen with the current holograms.

“Potentially, you can tell a richer story than you can with a physical model,” Prentice says. And while he concedes that a traditional rendering is still a faster, easier, and cheaper option, he sees a lot of possibility.

“It’s a new take on communication of spatial information that I don’t think architecture has really explored yet or had the opportunity to explore,” Shelden says. “We don’t know where it’s going, but we’ve got some good ideas.”