Making hologram dreams come true: Inventor Alex Hornstein ’03

Hornstein, right, and cofounder Shawn Frayne with their Volume display.

After just a year at MIT, Alex Hornstein ‘03 knew exactly what he wanted to do: Be an inventor. “The best way to do that,” he says, “is to invent stuff all the time. There’s not a good credential for inventors, you just should practice it.”

And that, essentially, is what Hornstein has done the last dozen years or so. As an electrical engineering/computer science undergrad, he was part of an MIT student-run space with talented creators and builders all “obsessively making things.” After graduating he spent a year at Idealab in California, then returned to Boston to start his own version of the technology incubator, “which promptly failed.” He spent four years in Hong Kong, a hotbed of tech design and invention. There he befriended Shawn Frayne, a fellow MIT alumnus, and the two began working on low-cost solar panels to bring electricity to the rural Philippines.

Three years ago, Hornstein (son of Science Dean Amy Sheck) and Frayne began working on a technique for printing holograms. “Shawn had been obsessed with holograms since he was a kid, and I used to doodle in French class [at NCSSM], drawing 3-D displays in between conjugating verbs,” says Hornstein.

After two years and one iteration, they knew they were onto something — a volumetric display that adds motion to 3-D and can be manipulated. “Volumetric is our nerd term for it,” Hornstein explains. “Generally, it’s like the hologram displays you see in science fiction.” To support themselves, their three Looking Glass Factory labs — in Providence, RI; Brooklyn, NY; and Hong Kong — and employees, they started selling the display “kits” to hobbyists. They’ve sold more than 2,000 units. Their product, Volume, is now in its second iteration.

Watch Looking Glass Factory video

“So we released it into the world, and people are creating and sharing what they create, like 3-D films, 3-D video games, volumetric Skype,” he says. “That’s what I like about this time right now, it’s all about exploring the applications, not just on our own but what other 3-D designers come up with.”

Frayne and Hornstein have watched the explosion of virtual reality design in the last five years and know it’s the next hot thing. They like that Volume doesn’t require glasses or a headset; it doesn’t cut you off from the real world. “Our bet is there’s a huge chase right now for 3-D,” Hornstein says. “People want to interact with it but they don’t know how yet. We built something that doesn’t need any gear or headset. I feel like it will be a while before I get bored with this.”

Hornstein serves as chief technology officer for Looking Glass Factory. The firm functions as a start-up, making him an entrepreneur. “I like to think that I’m still very much an inventor,” says Hornstein, now a father and an employer in Providence. “But we probably do spend more time now thinking about how not to crash and burn.”

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