For years the oil and gas industry has struggled with visualizing three dimensions in a two-dimensional space such as a computer screen. We live and function in a 3-D space, but it’s often hard to communicate that reality with the current tools at our disposal.

Companies have dealt with this problem in the past by building scale models of their tools or construction projects, but these models can cost thousands of dollars to build. Austin, TX-based Zebra Imaging has a simpler approach – a holographic image.

Holograms are not new, but the sophistication of these images now allows them to have real use beyond simply a novelty item. According to Karen Hanley, product line manager for Zebra, the images have a variety of uses, from conveying technical concepts to non-technical people to trade show displays to sales presentations. For instance, FMC Technologies uses holograms to display 3-D renderings of some of their huge pieces of equipment. Not only does this save a tremendous amount of money, but it’s also a conversation starter. “We tend to see people come back to the booth three or four times and bring their friends,” Hanley said. “It’s that added stickiness – you can have a good conversation with them, evaluate the lead, and move the conversation along while making the booth itself more effective.”

She added that complex models more readily lend themselves to this approach than a 3-D model on a computer. “The complexity is really our sweet spot,” she said. “You can very quickly show a bunch of information, and the net-net is a faster time to decision, faster time to approval.”

How it works

The client provides Zebra with a 3-D data source such as an .obj file. The data is input into rendering software, and a preview is output for client approval. Once everyone has signed off, tiny holographic elements are recorded by lasers onto a specially designed film plate. When a light is shone on the plate, the elements emit thousands of points of light, giving the impression of a solid 3-D image.

The image appears to be about 6-10 in. above and below the plate, though that can be adjusted.

The plates are very sturdy, lightweight, and portable, and several can be combined for a larger image. At most they cost about US $3,500 each.

One of Zebra’s unique features is a process called “channeling,” in which the image changes depending on the angle at which it’s viewed. The plates can be set on revolving bases to demonstrate different phases of a building project, for example, or to illustrate water pipes in one view and electrical lines in another. And unlike the holograms of old that were bizarre combinations of red and green, the color renderings offered by Zebra can be quite bright or, in the case of a layout of a city, quite realistic. The plates can be lighted by a halogen or LED source.


Applications are almost limitless, but typical customers include the defense industry, the construction industry, architects, engineers and facilities designers, planners, and those needing a 3-D display for an exhibit or presentation.

A potential use in oil and gas is in safety training. Hanley showed a very realistic rendering of an offshore platform. Newcomers to the platform could use the image to familiarize themselves with its layout prior to actually arriving on the scene, and evacuation procedures could be reinforced during safety meetings.

The company has a new motion product in development, and it continues to innovate as customers find more uses for the technology.

“We’re really responding to that next wave of customers,” Hanley said. “They’re always saying, ‘Hey, I could use this for such and such.’ But you really have to see it to believe it.”


Zebra Imaging has created a realistic 3-D hologram of a Mustang offshore drilling rig. (Image courtesy of Zebra Imaging)