Will you tell of your hopes and your dreams and the goodness you have seen? Or will you tell them of the darkness you've created with your own hands?
The Park Community Church in Chicago is a multi-story Christian center that more closely resembles a Starbucks than any cathedral—and in fact houses its own coffee shop. It's the opening of a two-day faith-based creative conference. Glancing around both the common area and the stage area, I spot more references to iPhone apps and Twitter hashtags than at CES.
What drew me here—on a weekday no less—was the promise of holographic technology that worked hand-in-hand with worship. Religion, live in 3D! And in my wildest, pagan dreams, I could never have imagined the gorgeous fodder I was about to see as the conference opened. Digital fire. Rain of ash. Explosions. Shouted preaching. Reassurances of one's mortal inadequacy. Everything that turned me away from Christianity in my teenage years was here, rolled into one opening monologue with a Hell of a video backdrop.
And then, as if the fire and brimstone preaching had never occurred, the rest of the day proceeded in contemporary Christian mundanity: '90s-style religious rock/country, lectures on the role of faith and even some genuinely pleasant, even inspiring professional talks.
Fourteen years ago, Houston Clark's brother George was finishing his degree in electrical engineering while freelancing in the live and recorded audio world. Houston himself was making a lucrative living in the software business. But something upset them: For reasons suspected to be more than mere finances, churches were being locked out of the latest and greatest technologies. It seemed that high-end A/V specialists cold-shouldered groups of faith, frowning upon the world of worship.
So they founded Clark ProMedia, with the stated goal to provide world-class class creative and technical resources to communities of faith.
For the last 18 months, the team has been working on something beyond high end speaker and lighting rigs, perfecting the use of a decade-old technology: 3D stage projection (without glasses).
The brilliance is in the system's simplicity.
It's basically a 2D projector and a foil (a transparent, angled screen). The projector blasts and image onto a white screen, hidden below like the stage like an orchestra pit; the foil reflects this image much like a store window.
So how could this possibly look "3D"? It's just a 2D screen showing normal 2D video floating in space. As the Old Testament will tell you, religious impact hinges on three key factors: location, location, location.
The foil allows for a whole backdrop to be placed behind the images, along with multiple levels of performers. In other words, it stretches the stage's Z space, or depth. (If the Clarks had the space and budget, they could layer multiple foils, which would allow 2D images to be stacked, creating a more authentic experience.)
In person, this one-foil rig sometimes looked mundane and sometimes looked extremely impressive. A simple duet transcended to something truly special as rose petals appeared to float around the musicians.
And a full-sized, holographic minister looked fairly lifelike onstage, even if the proportions were a bit off in this demo.
Photo-real images worked quite well. But a lunchtime cartoon demo looked completely flat. As with any display technology, some content works better than others.
The limitations of the system didn't seem to be the foil, but the projectors and video assets. Lateral movements: like a figure walking across the stage, or even those rose petals blowing a bit too quickly. These accentuated frame rate limitations, which robbed the illusion of its realism. And the brightness of human figures could really use some tweaking—they appear a bit like radiant CGI next to a real person.
Such are the pangs of any promising developing media technology: Artists and designers try to learn a system's limitations while engineers stretch the thresholds of their equipment.
In the meantime, while I'd expected—hoped, even—to giggle at reenactments of Moses parting the Red Sea live on stage, Clark had provided no such kitsch religious theatrics beyond the fiery apocalypse that started my day. And even that struck me more as a nod to the Old Testament than distinctly lacking taste. Most of the 3D content was little more than an animated wallpaper.
"It's important that the technology doesn't overshadow the message," Houston Clark says. "But it's also important that the performance adequately uses the technology to best get the message out."
I still wonder where this technology will go in the hands of others, when the Clarks don't have their hands in every piece of content. Will we, for instance, see a digital Jesus preaching in tandem with a local minister? Or a group of angels singing alongside a choir? Maybe. And there's no telling where content creators could go with the Crucifixion.
The company is currently under NDA with a number of mainstream clients. Janet Jackson's name has been mentioned more than once to me by various staff; she'd apparently shown interest in their technology a few weeks back. I ask if they can have a foot in both doors: Christian groups and performers who may be best known for flashing millions of families on broadcast television.
"Clark has the ability to serve many markets…and the results of our work are used to further our mission of serving the Church," Houston Clark explains. "[But] just as in any business opportunity (including within the Church), if values are in conflict, we can choose not to engage."
Will you tell them of the angels / those messengers of the Lord? Will you tell them of the invisible kingdom? Will you tell them of the unseen God?
I'm impressed by Clark's setup, especially as the whole rig fits into a room no larger than most high school gyms, and the system's setup cost isn't far beyond that of a professional HD projector. Especially in an environment that's always been focused on the unseen, a 3D digital stage is quite the spectacle.
But as star Christian singer Kari Jobe takes the stage, raising her hands into the heavens, inspiring the crowd to do the same, they aren't reaching for speakers, lights, or clever illusions. (In fact, technical difficulties prevent the projection system from working at all at this moment.)
Everyone in the room is grasping for something far less tangible than another technological gimmick. And even if they welcome such advancements warmly into their worship, eventually, once the singing and projections are done, the congregation reaches into their bags, plucking the simple thing that had brought them all here in the first place: a Bible, printed with ink on good old paper.
And in a most ironic (or maybe completely planned) fashion, the demographic that the hologram impressed most was the non-believer. Me.
Mark Wilson is a Contributor at Gizmodo and founder of crowdsourced world photography blog Life, Panoramic.