Researchers create ‘true’ Star Wars like 3D holograms with tiny particles, lasers

Do you remember the scene from the sci-fi film ‘Star Wars’ where the R2-D2 beams a hologram of Princess Leia into thin air? Looks like it might not take long before the true Princess Leia hologram experience becomes a reality.

Apparently, researchers at Utah’s Brigham Young University (BYU) uses the method dubbed as “optical trap display” that is capable of projecting 3D “volumetric images” into “thin air”. According to a study published in Nature’s journal, the technology can be used to project small floating 3D volumetric images that can be viewed and interacted from all angles. Viewers can walk around the projections and even place a finger below them.

“Often, when we think of an image that’s floating in space that’s 3D, we think of a hologram,” explains the lead researcher, Daniel Smalley, the study’s lead author and a BYU electrical and computer engineering professor and holography expert. “But really, a hologram cannot make the Princess Leia image, or the Avatar table, or the Iron Man display. A 3D image that floats in [the air], that you can walk all around and see from every angle, this image is called a ‘volumetric image.'”

The Optical Trap Display uses colorful lasers to capture physical particles, which are then moved around to create the 3D image. “You capture a particle in an invisible, or almost invisible ‘tractor beam’,” explains the lead researcher, Daniel Smalley, the study’s lead author and a BYU electrical and computer engineering professor and holography expert, “then you drag that around to every point of an image. When it’s in the right place, you shoot it with red, green and blue lasers to make it illuminate, and build up an image point by point, dragging this cellulose particle around as you go.”

Smalley compares the technology to a “3D printer for light” because it works through a combination of multi-color laser beams and tiny plant fiber particles called cellulose. A scientific phenomenon known as Photophoresis allows you to push a particle in the air by blasting it with a beam of light.

“We’re using a laser beam to trap a particle, and then we can steer the laser beam around to move the particle and create the image,” said Erich Nygaard, a researcher on the team in a statement.

Several tiny images have been 3D-light-printed by Smalley and his team, such as a butterfly, a prism, the stretch-Y BYU logo, animated rings and an individual in a lab coat bent in a position similar to Princess Leia as she begins her projected message.

Smalley said the new technology is “printing something in space, just erasing it very quickly.” He added, “We’re providing a method to make a volumetric image that can create the images we imagine we’ll have in the future. It can create the images of science fiction where it wasn’t previously possible. It is very much like the displays of science fiction.”

One day, this method could be used to help guide medical procedures, said Smalley. For instance, if the surgeons want to get a 3D view of an artery, displays like this could be used by them before inserting a catheter. Similarly, this technology could be used for entertainment as well.

“It’s firmly in the Elon Musk category of items, where with enough spark and money, it will definitely happen eventually,” said Smalley.


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