Why CNN’s pseudo “hologram” was such a bad idea

The Dallas Morning News Tech Blog speculates on the next step in holographic election coverage...

The Dallas Morning News Tech Blog speculates on the next step in holographic election coverage...

Someone might want to tell CNN: TV is a two-dimensional medium. Holograms don’t work there — not even in high-definition. That’s even more true for holograms that aren’t really holograms.

On election night, CNN debuted a new type of eye candy into its coverage: three-dimensional video interviews with reporter Jessica Yellin and rapper Will.I.Am, both speaking from Chicago. As the TV camera moved around the studio, the angle of the projected image changed, creating the illusion of an in-studio 3D projection.

Here’s what it looked like (Note: CNN’s embedded video just went flaky, but that article on CNN contains a playable version.)

And here’s why this stunt was such a bad idea…

First, let’s get the technology straight: CNN described these projections as “holograms,” but the Canadian Broadcasting Company explained this effect more accurately:

“The network, which made use of three-dimensional imaging technology produced by Norway-based Vizrt and Israel-based SportVu, billed the interview as a first for television. …The CNN anchors were not really speaking to three-dimensional projected images, but rather empty space, said [holography expert Hans Jürgen Kreuzer]. The images were simply added to what viewers saw on their screens at home, in much the same way computer-generated special effects are added to movies.

“Kreuzer said the images were tomograms, which are images that are captured from all sides, reconstructed by computers, then displayed on screen. Holograms, on the other hand, are projected into space.”

Also, Vizrt explained in detail how the CNN “hologram” worked. It is indeed intriguing technology that might have some good uses on TV.

I watched CNN’s TV coverage of the elections. In my opinion, this gimmick succeeded in being visually interesting and entertaining. I personally like that CNN experiments with new tools, on TV and online. However, this particular tool, in this case, added absolutely nothing to the substance of the coverage. Thus, it trivialized CNN’s coverage.

That’s my opinion, anyway. In contrast, CNN gave itself a glowing review for this experiment. That’s funny, because the soft blue glow that appeared to surround the “holograms” was fake. Chuck Hurley, CNN Washington bureau senior video producer of video, who managed the execution of the “hologram,” explained that the glow “was added intentionally to avoid confusion.”

Said Hurley, “We could have had a much crisper, more realistic shot, almost to the extent where the viewer at home would have had no idea even that the person wasn’t really there. You don’t want to have the effect where it looks so good that for every future live shot, you have people on the blogs saying, ‘Oh they’re not really there — they’re in a studio, faking the moon landing.'”

…Well, that’s one way to look at it.

It’s also possible that CNN was attempting to replicate the look of Princess Leia’s famous holographic call for help from the first Star Wars movie. Jessica Yellin even said at the start of her interview, “I follow in the tradition of Princess Leia.” (And yes, the inevitable mashups are already on YouTube and elsewhere.)

To be fair, I don’t doubt that when most people think of holograms, a tiny Princess Leia surrounded by a blue glow is the first image that leaps to mind. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with playing to viewer expectations of visual cues.

But: Deliberately crafting a George Lucas homage during news coverage of one of the most remarkable elections in U.S. history? A day on which record numbers of Americans demonstrated their willingness and ability to make decisions, think critically, and assume personal responsibility by voting? In that context, I thought the blue glow seemed cynical and condescending. Surely CNN had other options to avoid visual confusion.

I hope CNN (and other video providers) continues to experiment with tomograms. This effect could prove useful and engaging. But please, don’t use it to talk down to people. That’s just embarrassing.

(NOTE: I posted slightly less opinionated version of this to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits earlier today.)

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