Hawking Holograms

Beam me up! Professor Stephen Hawking turned into a 3D hologram at a lecture in Hong Kong


hawking hologram

Meeting Stephen Hawking in person is already an exciting experience. But this time around, the hype was not about what the world-famous theoretical physicist said but the medium that he chose to deliver his lecture.

Hawking appeared as a hologram in front of hundreds in the audience at the Hong Kong Science Park last month. With images being beamed live from Hawking’s office in Cambridge, the technology involved goes beyond the speech synthesizer that the British scientist uses.

The holographic projection, which was slightly larger than the professor is in life-size, was created by ARHT Media. The Canadian startup has partnered with NetDragon Websoft, a Hong Kong-based online games company, to market the imaging technology in Asia.

Photo-realistic human holograms are not new. Although they are still a novelty in commercial applications, they have been used by the entertainment industry which deems the six-figure production cost affordable.

Digital Domain, the Hong Kong-based owner of the Playa Vista visual effects studio, has resurrected a number of deceased singers, such as Tupac Shakur and Teresa Teng, through its hologram project. The virtual image of Teng performed on stage with Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou in 2013.

ARHT Media is prioritizing application in education over entertainment, though. It wants to bring its HumaGram technology to students and teachers, building a “low cost, high distribution” learning platform that will pull together “some of the best educators in the world”.

“We believe the Asian market, in particularly China, represents a fertile ground for us to realize this technology,” said Paul Duffy, president and chief executive of ARHT Media. “In Hong Kong, we are actively pursuing a number of universities and corporations.”

The demonstration event in Hong Kong showed a glimpse of what to come. During the 90-minute lecture, Hawking spoke and answered inquiries about his career, current research, and where he stands on the issue of Brexit and Donald Trump.

Despite the speaker’s immobility and monotonous computer voice, the crowd was listening attentively. The novelty factor of a hologram prolonged the audience’s attention span, with them marveling at the life-like eyes and lips movement captured and recreated on stage.

Hawking’s lecture was taped. It will be broadcast as a pay-per-view program.

“We have an open system concept, which works on all devices – television, smartphone, iPad and augmented reality headset,” said Simon Leung Lim-kin, vice chairman and executive director of NetDragon Websoft. “All the experiences that we capture will be able to be enjoyed on any devices, anytime anywhere.”

hawking at cambridge

Creating a human hologram is simpler than one would imagine. Hawking was seated in front of a green screen that measured four meters wide and eight meters tall. Multiple shots were captured in advance. However, a single-camera setup would suffice during a live broadcast.

Transmitting the hologram require technical specialty. The Toronto-based company has developed an exclusive video codec to package the audio and images that can be sent with low latency over a cloud-based media server and broadband internet connection.

“We are able to create a primary, secondary and tertiary format so we have redundancy built in the system. When we have a clean line, which is typically what happens when we set up, we are able to take a human hologram from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in 400 to 700 milliseconds,” Duffy said.

In regions such as the mainland, where landline internet connection is unstable and expensive, sending a partial hologram – only the face, instead of the full body, as an example – is one solution.

Another option for transmission is via a mobile phone network.

“We typically need anywhere from two to 10 megabytes per second for transmission. That’s the low end of 3G. So most of the transmissions that we are doing now can probably be provisioned through a cell-phone network,” he added.

Reproducing a human hologram does not require the use of a special projector. But special mesh-like screens are needed. Two screens were used at Hawking’s lecture: a nine-meter-wide, four-meter-high one fixed at mid-stage, and another in the rear of the stage.

The virtual Hawking was projected in-between the screens. It was, in fact, a two-dimensional image. But stage lighting and fancy graphics can fool the human brain, making the screens invisible and the image convincingly three-dimensional, explained an engineer of ARHT Media.

The company is creating a smaller type of special screen for schools and home users. The new screen measures twp-meter-high and one to two meters wide. Only one of them, rather than two, is required to render a hologram image.

While human hologram is not as widely popular as other existing types of video streaming technologies, important early adopters exist.

Duffy predicted that a critical mass of clientele will form when the price for purchasing projection equipment falls under US$1,000 (HK$7,800).

“The cost to build a display station is coming down dramatically. And mass proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality headsets all make for the ability to create a fully formed human experience but in a life-size model,” he said.

“In the US, it costs from a few hundreds dollars all the way down to US$50 or US$60 a month to lease one of these projectors. It’s getting quickly into the realm of what’s possible for mass distribution.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 24, 2017.

Main Man

Gordon Ramsay wants to be judged by what he puts on a plate, not his TV persona.

gordon ramsay

You hear Gordon Ramsay before you see him. Not profanity. It’s the oohs and ahhs uttered by the crowd – some hysterically waving behind the windows in a building across the street – that have gathered to catch a glimpse of the reality TV star.

What the British celebrity chef and restaurateur is like in real life is comparable to what you see on television.

The quick-witted talker can appear in different shades and threat levels, from being the benevolent fatherly host in MasterChef Junior, to the fiery-tempered culinary perfectionist in Hell’s Kitchen.

His self-introduction is not a one-liner: “I am a driven, passionate chef. I don’t suffer fools. I get straight to the point. I don’t like [expletive]. What you see is what you get. I love cooking. I cook from the heart. My job became a passion decades ago, so probably, I am one of the most hard-working chefs anywhere in the world today. Please to meet you. Now sit down and enjoy dinner.”

Ramsay flew over to inspect Bread Street Kitchen & Bar in Lan Kwai Fong. The restaurant, opened in 2014, is one of his 31 establishments spread around the world.

It had been 18 months since Ramsay last set foot in the restaurant. He started the Bread Street label in an attempt to branch into casual dining. When looking East for further conquest, the chef chose Central as his first foothold. Singapore and Dubai soon followed, and Ramsay will open a fifth in Sanya in October. He is also planning to open in Beijing and Shanghai.

The label was originally established in London in 2011. “The first Bread Street has five services in a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and cocktail. It spans 12,000 square feet. The one in Hong Kong is 3.5 times smaller,” Ramsay said.

“Hong Kong is really important for us. It’s a highly pressurized tiny foodie city – landlords demanding ridiculous rents, independent restaurants being pushed out due to soaring overheads. What keeps restaurants full is quality.”

To maintain high standards, Ramsay rotates his head chefs every two to three years. Gareth Packman, a “young, tenacious and hungry” lad from Manchester, was recently hand picked to helm the restaurant in Central. While Ramsay is not physically present, he runs a tight ship by hiring mystery diners.

One would expect working under Ramsay, who currently holds seven Michelin stars, to be a kitchen nightmare. He’s actually not. “The pressure for being a young chef today is completely different from it was five, 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s the amalgamation of being socially astute, having an innovative mind, and understanding the Asian influence of the modern European all-day eater.”

The 50-year-old, who overcame a harsh childhood, personifies what it means to be social savvy. He cooks for those with money, fame, power, or all three. Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela were his patrons.

“The beginning of my journey was about improving what I grew up with,” he recalled. “When you have that hunger and that determination, you can have nothing in life, and still control the way you want to go.”

Still, he connects with common people.

His Twitter account has 4.71 million followers. “I have four amazing children, who update me on how to be trendy,” he said. “Megan is at Oxford. Holly is doing A-Levels, studying French. Jack wants to go to the Marines. Mathilda just wants to annoy everybody. She is 15.”

Ramsay’s straight-talking is a social media hit. Recently, a woman requested a special dinner to convince her boyfriend to propose. “How the [expletive] do I do that?”, he said. “If he is not going to propose naturally, then you’ve got no chance, love. Move on. Don’t think my dinner is going to make him change his mind.”

Ramsay still has unfulfilled ambitions. He wants his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Pressoir d’Argent, to nab a third star.

And he wants to start enjoying life a little.

“I want to buy a Sunseeker and go fishing. Also, spend more time with my mum. She is 70. She likes coming to our house to spend the weekend. She cooks for the children what she cooked for me.”

Most importantly, he wants to regain control of his life. “I don’t rely on television to make me or my food famous. I know [expletive] well that what I put on a plate will be better than what you see on television. Judge me for what I put on the plate – not what you see on TV.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 21, 2017.

Scot Free

Robbie McRobbie, the incoming CEO of Hong Kong Rugby Union, wants the eggchasers to play a wider game


As excitement builds for the Hong Kong Sevens blockbuster, one thing is certain: Robbie McRobbie will have his hands full, not only with pleasing a stadium filled with passionate fans, but bringing a sport long overshadowed by football back to the mainstream.

He will succeed Vernon Reid as chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union after the Sevens, working alongside fellow Scotsman and tournament head Sam Pinder.

McRobbie, a familiar face in local sporting circles, joined the union as its first community rugby manager in 2003, and his responsibilities grew to include oversight of facilities, commercial and event organization.

In his new role, staff development will be top priority. He is also hoping to make domestic championships and youth participation more popular.

“We want to take rugby to every corner of Hong Kong. It is a game for all,” he says. “Just kicking a ball by itself is not going to change a youngster’s life. But sports, used in the right way, is a powerful agent for social change.”

A key project involves the promotion of touch rugby in primary schools. The union is working with the Education University to train coaches and to double the number of schools that teach the game in physical education classes to 240 by 2019.

“Wong Tai Sin, Tin Shui Wai, Tuen Mun, Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tsuen Wan are where we want rugby to really take hold,” he says. “A lot of the schools we are working with are not traditional rugby schools or sporting schools. It’s amazing what they can achieve.

“For example, Choi Hung Estate Catholic Secondary School emerged as one of the strongest teams in the past few years. It has been beating La Salle College, Diocesan Boys’ School and Wah Yan.”

Managing a game and nurturing teenagers might sound like unlikely aspirations for a former policeman like McRobbie. But the Scotsman discovered his true passion did not lie in extracting confessions following a course in sports and recreation management.

He was athletic in school, being into football and rugby when growing up in Gullane, a coastal town near Edinburgh. He remained an active sportsman, when reading history at Oxford, with football, rugby, cricket and rowing.

“When I started out, I was quite fast. I played in the back. As I grew taller, I ended up as a forward,” he recalls. “But I was never that good to go professional. And professional rugby did not start in Scotland from 1995.”

In 1992, he joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force at 20. He spent 11 years in the force, serving as inspector in the New Territories, instructor of the tactical unit, presenter of the Police Report TV program, and assistant manager of the Police Officers’ Club.

“In my career, I only arrested one person, who was burgling my flat. So I didn’t feel I was making a massive difference,” McRobbie jokes. “I was hoping I might do a much better job by working in the sports industry.”

Interestingly, the Scotsman who calls the SAR home is perhaps the best mascot the Sevens can get, as the game has two spiritual homes – Scotland and Hong Kong, where it was invented and reinvented.

Rugby Sevens originated in Scotland in 1883, in a town called Melrose. It became the global game that it is today after Hong Kong started an international tournament in 1976.

Entering its 42th year, the tournament in Hong Kong promises an exciting lineup, he says. A festival held at Chater Garden will televise the game live for free. And bars and restaurants will provide discounts via an app.

Most importantly, Hong Kong will make strides toward qualifying for the World Rugby Sevens Series in a first, if the men’s team comes out on top.

“The men will be playing against some strong teams, such as Spain, which plays in the Olympics, and Germany, which is getting very good very quickly,” McRobbie says.

“It will be a tough competition but they are definitely a favorite. They have come close to winning and getting a promotion a few times. They have given us some really memorable moments. Fingers crossed, we hope that this year they can go that one step further and actually qualify for the series.”

“And Scotland is in the top series competition. So for me, the perfect weekend will be Scotland winning the cup, and Hong Kong the qualifier.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 7, 2017.