STEX25 Startup:
April 13, 2020 - July 9, 2021

Sophistication where you least expect it

By: Kris Bierfelt

Fathom has pioneered a way to print holographic images using existing print packaging materials and equipment—plus trillions of light rays. Jaw-dropping 3-D experiences are coming soon to a grocery store near you.

Brand voice, graphic design, product packaging… engaging consumers in a retail environment is part art, part science, and absolutely crucial to the success of any brand. Boston-based startup Fathom uses computational optics and optimization to render eye-popping light field images that command attention on crowded store shelves. 

A light field, as Fathom CEO and co-founder Tom Baran explains, “is just the look of a surface from many, many different perspectives.” This layering of perspectives can create striking holographic effects, and Fathom has developed a way to achieve those effects using traditional print packaging equipment and materials. It’s an advantage that’s not only visually arresting, but also more affordable and more environmentally sustainable.

“What we offer is not a materials innovation at all,” says Baran, “it’s a data innovation.”

What we offer is not a materials innovation at all. It’s a data innovation.

Bringing light field technology off the screen

Fathom was born out of co-founder and CTO Matthew Hirsch’s research at the MIT Media Lab, where he received a PhD in computational optics in 2014. The company, originally called Lumii, focused on developing smarter algorithms to create enhanced 3-D displays on a phone or computer screen. Or, as Hirsch puts it, to give displays superpowers.

Their work yielded promising results and impressive prototypes, but to make screen displays that were up to their standards, the Fathom team soon realized they would have to fabricate components themselves. “That’s a multi billion dollar proposition,” Hirsch says, and one that many well resourced firms had already unsuccessfully struggled with. So, in the kind of plot twist that often happens when technology and business development, today Fathom is innovating in the print industry.

Colleagues were so taken with Hirsch and Baran’s low-tech display prototypes—light fields printed on stacks of old transparency film—that they asked to purchase them. That enthusiasm sparked the duo to ask themselves, “What are the businesses where we can afford to spend a ton of time and computational resources really getting these patterns just right, where as long as we do that once and really well, it can impact millions of things?”

The answer turned out to be product packaging.

Putting trillions of light rays into shoppers’ hands

Packaging grabs consumers’ attention. And packaging that entices consumers to pick an item up is something every brand manager wants. Just like the coworkers who couldn’t resist playing with Fathom’s prototypes, “if you can get a consumer to take a product off the shelf and hold it in their hands,” Baran says, “they’re significantly more likely to put it in their basket.” No wonder companies invest in glosses, foils, and other enhancements. 

Chances are there’s a shampoo bottle in your shower right now that incorporates metallic foil, or a toothpaste box with holographic effects. If you have a DVD collection, you’ve probably seen lenticular designs that look like 3-D moving images.

Enhanced packaging means enhanced costs—in the form of materials, press equipment, time, and training for press operators. And though they give brands a marketing edge, these packaging extras generate significant industrial waste during manufacturing, and post-consumer waste from materials that are difficult to delaminate and thus contaminate recycling streams. “These enhancements are physical solutions to a marketing problem,” Barran explains. “What we recognized was that this is something that we could solve with software, with algorithms.”

That’s where Baran’s PhD research on signal processing and optimization theory with MIT’s Al Oppenheim gives Fathom an advantage. 

With signal processing, Baran explains, a challenge is to create audio and images that appear natural, one bit at a time, “basically ones and zeros sequentially coming out of an audio pin, turning into something that sounds like a very high quality audio signal.” Look very closely, and you realize that printed images are also binary: pixel or no pixel, over and over. It’s only as you move farther away that you perceive a continuous image. “If you're looking at a [traditional, full-color printed] package, you might have a billion pixels just sitting on that toothpaste box,” Baran says.

Add light fields to that toothpaste box and you’re looking at potentially a trillion light rays required to create one graphic—a computationally intensive prospect

Fathom’s algorithms can smoothly process these lightrays, so that graphic designers using a simple plug-in for Adobe Illustrator can incorporate 3-D images into their normal workflow. Likewise, once a press is calibrated and its unique characteristics are incorporated into the algorithm Fathom generates, it’s possible to print miles of material in one run of these constrained graphics.

Light fields in the post-pandemic grocery store

Fathom’s light field printing capabilities help brands and press operators meet some of the realities of retail in a post-COVID-19 era. During the spring of 2020, the pandemic led to an aluminum can shortage in the US, not to mention unpredictable and disrupted supply chains for all kinds of consumer goods. Brands needed to find new packaging form factors and repurpose existing packaging for suddenly high-demand items. For many producers, their most flexible labeling solution in this situation is to use plastic shrink sleeves that conform to any shape.

Because Fathom’s software can generate images that are optimized for any surface, it’s ideal for these shrink sleeves. “As far as we're aware, we're the only ones who know how to solve the computational problem [of printing light fields on 3-D surfaces],” Baran says. This makes it easy for producers to adapt packaging as needed without sacrificing visual impact. 

As far as we're aware, we're the only ones who know how to solve this computational problem.

Printing holographic images on 3-D surfaces offers another built-in security feature, too. Bank notes often feature holograms as anti-counterfeiting devices, but as the Bank of England found out in 2017, laminated holograms can flake or rub off when the bills get crumpled or end up in a clothes dryer. There’s no such risk with Fathom-generated files printed directly to a substrate.

And because Fathom’s output is custom generated for existing press equipment, they’re able to instantly adapt to new materials and processes. As manufacturers develop things like new, thinner substrates, plant-based packaging, and more sustainable inks, Fathom will be there. “Because we're just using ink,” Baran says, “and you can print on all of these [surfaces], we can immediately plug right into these new materials innovations.”

Looking forward, Fathom plans to roll out an alpha version of its software to select customers in the near future. “Education is our biggest focus right now,” says Baran. As with any new artistic tool, people need an opportunity to handle samples, experiment with ideas, and look at ways to bring Fathom’s light fields into existing package design.

High demand for consumer goods during the pandemic has meant that commercial presses are running 24/7, and Fathom has had to postpone some test print runs. The delays are frustrating for a team that’s so enthusiastic about pushing the limits of what’s possible, but they’re looking on the bright side. “It’s a good sign for the industry overall,” Hirsch says, “so we take comfort in that from a business perspective.”

In the meantime, Hirsch and Baran continue optimizing, iterating, onboarding new presses, and rendering holographic images that are poised to take the shopping experience into a whole new dimension.