Hologram Technology and Internal Corporate Communications: A Hypothetical Case Study

This is not a prediction that holograms are the wave of the future for internal comms. Rather, I choose the technology because it exists but is not yet fully developed and not mainstream, which means holograms have the potential to be a disruptive technology. The exercise is intended to show how an internal comms manager might think through exploring a disruptive technology and communication innovation in order to avoid the innovator’s dilemma.

This is the final installment of my nine-part series on how internal communicators can overcome the innovator’s dilemma. Here I’ll take you into the (near?) future.

Series summary: The Innovator’s Dilemma,* a classic business book, examines how companies can succeed or fail in the face of disruptive innovation. The insights and lessons from this study can be used by internal communicators who are faced with maintaining a status quo comms program or deciding whether to adopt innovative communications strategies.

Purchase The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution

Hologram Technology and Internal Communications: A Hypothetical Case Study

The first eight parts of this series introduced Clayton Christensen’s concept of “the innovator’s dilemma” and applied the cautions and lessons to the internal communications profession. Christensen followed a similar outline in The Innovator’s Dilemma and concluded his theorizing with a hypothetical case for building electric cars, which was forward-thinking back in 1997.

This essay uses the tenets, lessons, and principles described in the first eight parts to illustrate how an internal comms function can succeed when faced with disruptive technology and innovation.

Without further ado…

Here is how I would approach trying to bring holographic communication technology to my company.

This is not a prediction that holograms are the wave of the future for internal comms. Rather, I choose the technology because it exists but is not yet fully developed and not mainstream, which means holograms have the potential to be a disruptive technology. The exercise is intended to show how an internal comms manager might think through exploring a disruptive technology and communication innovation in order to avoid the innovator’s dilemma.

How Can We Know If a Communications Technology Is Disruptive?

The Hungarian-British physicist Dennis Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971 “for his invention and development of the holographic method.” Gabor’s work, which was done in the 1940s, was based on technology dating back to 1920. So holography and holograms are not new.

My first step is to ask a series of questions: Is it possible that holograms will be in mainstream communications technology? Aside from entertainment value, could holograms be accepted as utilitarian? Can holograms capture employees’ attention better than other media? What forms of holography are our employees experiencing outside of work now, or can expect to experience in the near term?

  • This last question is especially important because, as I discussed in part 2: Today vs. Tomorrow, employees eventually expect their consumer experiences to be adapted by their workplace. Think what YouTube did to video communications, or what the iPhone did to employee apps.

Holograms and Big Tech

Facebook is deep into developing virtual and augmented reality, the former of which is experienced through their Oculus headset. Virtual reality, however, does not allow for holography because it immerses you in a 360-degree environment experienced through goggles that hide the outside world from view. Holograms are visual components of augmented reality, where real-world experiences are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information.

Facebook is seriously exploring augmented reality, including the use of holograms displayed through some sort of eyewear. In speaking with tech reviewer and YouTube celebrity Marques Brownlee about the future of augmented reality, Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said:

Once augmented reality hits and you have a normal pair of glasses that…can last all day long and project holograms into the world, then you’ll be able to do a version of your show where your hologram can just show up on my couch right here and you can hand me the phone and I can kind of take the phone as a hologram and play with it like that.

One kind of trippy thing I think about that’s further out is that once we have really good mature AR glasses, we won’t even necessarily need other kinds of screens anymore. Things like TVs, tablets, all these things could just be digital holograms.

Google is also going directly to the consumer with a holographic experience dubbed Project Starline. Their holography technology has been promoted as a way to connect distant friends and relatives who haven’t seen each other in real life in a very long time. Said one participant after her surreal experience: “That was mind-blowing.” And another, who spoke with her holographic sister: “I felt like she was present and I felt like I was present in that moment too. It was like she was here.”

In terms of defining audiences, Microsoft appears to be taking the opposite approach from Facebook and Google and going B2B. Although their promotional video shows use cases for personal entertainment, education, and communication, Microsoft’s HoloLens is squarely being aimed at uses in manufacturing, diagnostics, healthcare, the military, and education, instead of social and gaming experiences.

“We’re finding great success and momentum within enterprise and within workloads that have to do with productivity, communication, learning, teaching, and things of that nature,” says Alex Kipman, the creator of Microsoft’s HoloLens, which is billed as “an ergonomic, untethered self-contained holographic device with enterprise-ready applications…” A competitor in this landscape, Magic Leap, is also focusing on commercial use cases for holography.

Holograms in Entertainment

Meanwhile on the entertainment front, on September 22 this year Fox TV will premiere a singing competition called Alter Ego, which is described as “a first-of-its-kind avatar singing competition series and the next iteration of the musical competition show.” The producers use “motion capture technology and CGI to allow mysterious singers to present themselves as an entirely unique avatar.” That is, judges and the audience will be entertained by holographic projections on stage.

For the Tokyo Olympics, the technology company Kirari! experimented with bringing holographic badminton matches to fans who could not attend the event in person because of covid-related restrictions. The badminton matches were filmed in Musashino Forest Sports Plaza and projected onto a specifically built holographic studio inside Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

Kirari describes what’s happening:

Instantly capturing not just the dynamic movements of the athletes dashing across the court, but the movements of shuttlecocks that often exceed 400 kilometers per hour, the technology transmits the movements in real time in three-dimensional holographic images. It will allow viewers to have a live and immersive viewing experience at remote locations, as if the athletes are right there.

So Big Tech — Facebook, Microsoft, and Google — are pouring resources into leading commercial and consumer holography software, hardware, and experiences. Mainstream television entertainment companies are investing in and experimenting with the technology. And startups (like Voxon) are starting to offer their first line of hologram products to affluent customers.

Holograms appear to be edging their way into consumer and enterprise experiences, but whether they will stick around remains to be seen. The costs need to come down dramatically. The base model HoloLens 2, for example, costs $3,500. Magic Leap prices their first set of glasses at $2,300 and Voxon’s initial offering, the VX1, will set the consumer back a staggering $9,800.

Holograms at the Office

Holograms are inching their way into our non-work lives, but what about at the office? There are two companies that specialize in creating meeting experiences using holography.

ARHT Media Inc. uses its patented “HoloPresence technology” to overcome the challenges of time and distance by projecting holograms of presenters for far-flung audiences. In June this year the company announced a partnership with WeWork to bring hologram technology to 100 WeWork offices, starting with locations in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. According to the press release:

The holographic conferencing technology will provide new optionality for enterprise businesses interested in reducing travel expenses while still having more impactful interactions than traditional streaming and video conferencing offers. From town hall meetings, training and education seminars, and recruitment or sales meetings, ARHT Media’s technology offers users the ability to enhance digital interactions via hologram presentation with no noticeable latency.

While the prices for ARHT Media’s technology are hidden, we can get an idea of the costs. WeWork will charge its customers $2,500 to display a hologram at a single location or $25,000 for multiple holograms that appear simultaneously on a shared virtual stage. (Presumably WeWork intends to profit from these offers.)

  • Read my interview with ARHT on how their technology is being used for internal communications.

PORTL is ARHT Media’s main competitor. The founder’s vision for the company is “to facilitate communication of all kinds that adds the emotional element that previous virtual methods lack,” aiming to get PORTL in “every home streaming world class interactive hologram content and connecting people across every kind of divide.”

For PORTL to work, the audience needs to install their Epic box, about the size of an old phone booth, into which the hologram is beamed. (The effect is of a life-size doll talking to you through toy packaging.) Prices for the Epic start at $60,000 and can go as high as $85,000. A tabletop version of the Epic, PORTL Mini, was supposed to start delivery in Q2 2021 but remains “coming soon.”

Who Is the Audience for Holographic Internal Communications?

So holograms have the potential to be a disruptive communications technology. The challenge now is to find a legitimate use case for internal communications.

FIRST, I would make clear that my company should absolutely not go all-in on the technology for all employees, because holograms may not meet everyone’s communications needs. Although I’m unclear exactly where and how holograms should be used by employees, I can surmise that the audience is not the power users of current internal comms channels, such as the intranet (or Microsoft Teams, Workplace by Facebook, etc.).

Ironically, this is the audience that many capable managers would start with in an experiment with innovative comms programs for the same reason corporate leaders would focus on a mainstream market for a new product: because the existing audience is a proven moneymaker and a new market is not guaranteed to be profitable. An internal comms manager acting rationally may default to trying out holographic communications with its most ardent intranet readers because they have proven themselves to be interested in receiving corporate communications. And yet these traditionalists might not take too well to a newfangled channel.

As Christensen points out in The Innovator’s Dilemma, “the very attributes that make disruptive technologies uncompetitive in mainstream markets actually count as positive attributes in their emerging value network.” To cite one example: the Segway’s bulkiness and upscale price made them untenable as mass-market commuter or transportation devices, but the transporter was ideal for police departments and private security companies who regularly patrolled confined areas.

And so I would embark on a path of discovery within the company: somewhere a group of employees who don’t regularly use the intranet (or mobile app or whatever “mainstream” channel) has an undiscovered need for receiving internal communications by way of a hologram.

SECOND, my proposal would make clear that no amount of employee surveying and polling will show me the right audience for holographic internal comms. Employees will discover the use case for holograms at the same time my team is discovering it — together. The most useful information will be gleaned from experimenting with small employee groups, trial and error, iteration, testing, and gathering feedback.

THIRD, my proposal would be a plan for learning. In experimenting with unknown and untested technology, I would never present a completely thought-out plan for execution. The first few attempts at using holograms for internal comms will probably fail, but lessons will be learned. As mentioned in part 6: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know:

Time and resources must be limited, in case the endeavor fails. The mortality rate for innovation is high, but it need not be very risky. Don’t bet the farm. Leave resources and good will on the table so you can try again. Do not throw your entire discretionary budget at the issue.

These three guidelines — exploration, iteration, and learning — ground my search for the right employee audience.

Potential Audiences: Some Speculation

Which employees would be the right group for holographic communications?

One potential audience is the global management or leadership team. These very busy executives spend most of their time in meetings and traveling to and from meetings. They aren’t reliant on the intranet to deliver company news and communications because they are the company news and the subject of communications. Their inboxes are deluged with messages, meaning one of the most salient forms of internal communications is literally lost to them. Moreover, they are required to meet with other high-profile managers and leaders daily, weekly, and monthly, whether in the same office, across the country, or on another continent. The use of holograms for virtual meetings would save domestic and international travel time (time is money!) and reduce the actual costs of travel, making the entire leadership group more productive and efficient. Appearing as a hologram could also have appeal for employees in the satellite offices where upper management rarely or never visits; at least the machine’s cogs will have some form of enhanced contact and communication with leadership.

Other potential early adopter employees include employees who work in the field or in labs, who rely on communications to be cascaded from headquarters through regional and satellite office leadership. Holographic dispatches from HQ could make them feel more connected to the mothership. The same goes for remote employees who work for fully remote or hybrid companies, who may never see their managers or coworkers in real life…ever. A hologram can’t replace an in-person experience, but it goes a long way in showing their colleagues in three dimensions instead of flat, chest-up avatars on a Zoom screen.

Salespeople are another potential audience. They rely on regular updates and demonstrations of new features and products and have to travel — often great distances — to home base to get the information in town hall-style meetings or training sessions. Rather than having to travel to the home office once per week and then re-scatter to the winds for the rest of the week to sell their wares, this audience could receive the same information through holographic downloads, therefore maximizing their time on the road and, thus, presumably, increasing sales.

Are any of these employee audiences viable? Will holographic technology improve their communications experience? It’s unclear, but they all have in common attributes and needs that allow for disruptive innovations to take hold.

What Should Be the Experimental Strategy?

We’re faced with the classic chicken-and-egg problem: Without an audience, there is no obvious or reliable source of employee feedback; without a communications technology or channel that addresses employees’ needs, there is no audience. How do we move forward?

An innovative communications technology will have greater chances of success if it is simple, reliable, and convenient. Success, then, means finding an audience that values these three attributes. (This is true of all the innovations Christensen reviewed in The Innovator’s Dilemma.)

Thus, an internal comms team can move forward with an experiment in holography so long as the following criteria are met:

FIRST, the technology must be simple, reliable, and convenient. That means not having to go through any complicated setup to create and/or view the holograms.

SECOND, because we’re unsure of exactly the right audience for holographic communications, we need to create a platform in which changes to features and function can be done easily and cheaply. Assume, for example, that our initial audience is the global management team. The first round of our efforts will have features that appeal to them, like ease of setup. But there’s a high probability that global managers are not the right audience for holographic technology, so whatever we concoct for their trial must be quickly and cheaply adapted for trial with the next group of employees, such as salespeople.

THIRD, it must be cheaper than a competing alternative. For example, the cost of a holographic experience for a manager must be cheaper than his or her costs of traveling to another office for a meeting and all that entails (e.g., transportation, meals, lodging, time, etc.) Our experiment must be more cost-effective than the status quo way of communicating.

LASTLY, a reminder that this is not the time nor is it our responsibility to invent or invest in holographic technology and companies. We must use what already exists and is commercially available.

Creating the Space for Disruptive and Innovative Internal Communications

So far I have:

  • Identified holograms as a potentially disruptive internal comms technology
  • Set realistic expectations for finding use cases with employees
  • Established parameters for experimenting with holograms

Now I’m ready to establish the resources and operation to try the new technology. This part is critical because reasonable managers with rational resource allocation strategies (i.e., those who want/need to maintain the status quo) would oppose this experiment and doom any chance of survival.

I need to establish a separate and independent internal comms team.

As we saw in part 3: A Lack of Resources, implementing disruptive and innovative internal comms technology is at the mercy of those who manage the budget.

Because proving the value of internal comms requires an elegant combination of quantitative and qualitative feedback from decision-makers (i.e., the C-suite), valuable internal stakeholders, and individual employees, it is extremely difficult to legitimize a foray into a disruptive communications effort where the effectiveness can’t be easily verified.

Until all other financially viable pursuits have disappeared or their lack of effectiveness has been shown and thus eliminated, the people who manage funding for internal comms (e.g., CCO, head of HR, CMO) will find it difficult to fund the pursuit of disruptive communications technology.

For internal comms, funding decisions are in the hands of others. Because of this financial chokehold, internal comms managers often find themselves unable to escape the innovator’s dilemma.

It is imperative that the head of internal comms — be it the CCO, CHRO, or CMO — create a small independent team to find a viable use case for holographic communications. This gives the employees on that team the ability to focus on the task at hand without being repeatedly drawn into regular internal comms activities, including the ever-distracting “brush fires” that must be regularly extinguished.

Here are three ways I could set up the team:

  • The independent team could be used as an incentive for internal comms team members who want a break from the daily grind.
  • Membership on the team could be done on a rotational basis once experiments have run their course.
  • The team can be made up of new hires external to the internal comms team.

Regardless of how the team is made up, its return on investment may take many months or a couple of years to realize. Thus, internal comms employees and managers may balk at joining the group because incremental improvements in status quo activity are a surer path to increases in salary/bonus and a promotion. Thus the innovation team is for go-getters with patience.

In the early months of using holograms “wins” will be few and far between. The first implementation will be a huge win; after that wins may be incremental. If your company is small, the early success may resound within the ranks and generate enthusiasm (and curiosity) for your efforts. If you work for a massive global company, your achievements may be barely noticed. That shouldn’t matter because you’re working independently of traditional processes, metrics, and feedback loops.

Because implementing new technology will be technically difficult and there will be unforeseen problems, I have to be sure that the experimental use cases are directionally correct for making a meaningful difference. If that’s the case it will be easier for stakeholders to stomach setbacks. If, however, I am experimenting with audiences or events that appear to be whimsical I will have less goodwill to bank on when things go awry.

As an independent group, there will be flexibility to fail, but at small levels. Remember what we learned in part 6 of this series, We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know.

Time and resources must be limited, in case the endeavor fails. The mortality rate for innovation is high, but it need not be very risky. You can’t bet the farm. Leave resources and good will on the table so you can try again. Do not throw your entire discretionary budget at the issue. Do not ask too much of your partners — IT, HR, management, early adopters, Security, etc. — who are probably stealing time from their day job to participate in your project.

And so the independent team must not have an unlimited budget. There must be constraints. The team must feel some sort of pressure to find a use case for holograms with some employee group somewhere in the company. There has to be some motivation for getting it right so that the experiment can expand beyond the early adopter phase.

Conclusion: Incubating Innovation

Using holograms in internal comms is a disruptive innovation that involves rethinking significant systems and relationships across the company. Security, IT, Operations, Communications, and other stakeholder groups will be affected. Because of the intense cross-functional and cross-departmental nature of the experiment, it is imperative that the innovation internal comms team be independent of the regular Comms function. While such organization does not guarantee success, it at least allows the team to work in an environment that encourages — rather than impedes — disruptive innovation.

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Many internal comms teams don’t have an editorial strategy. I’m here to fix that. Newsletter: https://mistereditorial.substack.com/.

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Many internal comms teams don’t have an editorial strategy. I’m here to fix that. Newsletter: https://mistereditorial.substack.com/.