CNN's tryout of holograms was the talk of TV on a night where networks brought forth all sorts of gizmos and gadgets to cover Barack Obama's election as president.
It was already being parodied Wednesday in an online mash-up, substituting CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin's voice with Princess Leia of "Star Wars."
Yellin stepped into a booth set up in a tent at Chicago's Grant Park, surrounded by 25 high-definition cameras that duplicated her moving image in much the same way as a flight simulator would. On-screen, it appeared she was standing and talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN's New York set, an eerie white halo around her.
At another point, singer will.i.am's image came out of on-screen snow, sort of like Capt. Kirk in "Star Trek."
The hologram left some critics baffled. "It was a cute trick," wrote Tom Shales in The Washington Post, "but how did it substantially contribute to the coverage? No one seemed to know."
CNN went to great lengths to bring forth the hologram, working with a California consulting company and two overseas firms, Sportvu and Vizrt, to develop the technology.
"I didn't want it to be the centerpiece of our coverage," CNN's senior vice president and Washington bureau chief David Bohrman said. "It was an ornament on our tree. It certainly worked. We'll see where it ends up, if anywhere."
It was an odd thing to break out on Election Night, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. (It certainly didn't appear to be a distraction, as CNN's audience Tuesday was nearly double what it was for 2004's Election Night).
"It was almost trotted out as kind of a vaudeville act," Thompson said.
Other optical illusions were on displayDeborah Potter, a former CBS News reporter and executive director of the TV news think tank Newslab, said she found it strange that CNN would want to send a reporter to a location filled with people celebrating Obama's election and then make it appear as if she wasn't there.
News organizations need to make it clear they're not deceiving people when technology makes it appear someone is somewhere they're not. ABC once apologized, for example, when Cokie Roberts posed in a winter coat overlooking a picture of the Capitol, making it appear she was outside when she was in a studio.
Bohrman said CNN deliberately made the effect look cheesy so the network's intentions were clear. The eerie white glow around Yellin, in other words, was put in intentionally. Between Yellin and will.i.am, the effect was on for about four minutes out of several hours of coverage.
"I don't think we overused it," he said. "We gave a little taste of something (viewers) may see a lot of in the future."
It wasn't the only optical illusion on display Tuesday. CNN's John King worked with a virtual reality U.S. Capitol, and NBC's Ann Curry stood in a green room that appeared, through virtual reality, to be a fancy set with Roman columns.
Television is constantly trying out new visual elements, like CNBC's use of 10 talking heads in on-screen boxes at the same time during the financial crisis. During the 1980s, Ted Koppel perfected the use of personalities discussing issues on a split screen.
Frazier Moore, television critic for The Associated Press called the holograms a "cool technique" that will likely become commonplace, a fancy update of the split screen.
Indeed, while its use may seem odd for a reporter in a newsmaking location, it may someday replace the scenes of David Gergen talking politics with Anderson Cooper, seemingly from the den of his house. With his location irrelevant, Gergen could be made to appear he was in the studio.
Such a technique could lend a more personal dynamic to an interview, Bohrman said.