Inspired By Star Trek, Artists Create A "Teleportation" Installation

Is The Constitute’s holographic installation the closest thing to a real-life Star Trek transporter?

It’s every Trekker’s dream: Berlin-based art collective The Constitute have built a real-life transporter ... well, nearly. The group was inspired by teleportation devices from science fiction to make , an interactive installation that “teleports” the image of a person in one location to a holographic display in another. 

To create the effect, fog machines generate artificial clouds in two different cities at the same time. A 3D scan of an individual in one city is projected onto both clouds in real-time, and the same happens to an individual in the other city. The participants can then see their own digital self next to that of their remote counterpart, and interact via their cloud avatar. 

I spoke to Christian Zöllner, one of the artists, over Skype. He explained that when The Constitute first started toying with the idea of creating something holographic, he naturally thought of the devices he’d seen in Star Trek when the show hit screens in East Germany, where he grew up.

“[I] thought this could be a nice idea, to look for prototypes that are made in a visual way and try to make them now,” he says. A period of intensive “research” followed: The team reviewed clips of Star Trek teleportation from the1960s to the 2000s, and put together a comprehensive compilation. 

Inspiration was also drawn from volumetric display devices imagined in other sci-fi favorites, from Tron to Prometheus (and yes, they did look at Star Wars, too). 

Zöllner explains they looked at these past visual concepts of teleportation in hopes of realizing ideas that were once confined to imagination--“making yesterday’s future with the means of today.” 

A prototype of Ready to Cloud was shown during Milan Design Week this April, and the latest version is being exhibited simultaneously at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, England, and Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, from 6-7 September. The project was realized in collaboration with digital artist Julian Adenauer, design collective Pfadfinderei, and filmmakers Pflasterfilme. See footage of the Milan showing here: 

Despite its sci-fi aspirations, the installation doesn’t use super high-tech tools but relies on off-the-shelf materials. “Basically, it’s not [as] much magic as it looks like,” says Zöllner. “What we do is we use a little Kinect 3D scanner that captures the person in each city. Then this image gets recalculated, and the mesh reworked, and we project it into the cloud.” 

When a person steps into the “teleportation zone”, the fog machines are turned on and the 3D scanning starts. The person’s digital avatar is beamed onto the cloud with a flash of lightning (naturally), where it appears two to three meters tall. By using the cloud as a projection screen, a three-dimensional effect is created without the need for specialized 3D projectors. 

Via the internet, the image is also projected into the cloud in the other city, so participants can communicate physically with their digital neighbor in real-time. The artists found it doesn’t take long for most people to start a fight with their cloud companion, so they added visual effects conducive to a more peaceful environment. When the avatars get close or touch, they start to sparkle and can morph together, until the cloud dissipates and they’re beamed out to be replaced by new people.

Basing the project around clouds was a conscious play on the current trend for so-called cloud services: With this installation, “The Cloud” becomes a physical meeting place as well as a digital one, and its capabilities are expanded from storage device to display medium.

The resolution of the projections isn’t as sharp as you might see in special effects in the movies, but Zöllner explains that, at least for now, the intention isn’t to create a photorealistic rendering. “It’s more an illusive and ephemeric piece-of-the-moment thing.”

Beam me up, Scotty!