Some say science fiction predicts future technology. Others say science fiction itself shapes technology by creating visions of the future. Either way, one feature of futuristic fiction has been conspicuously absent in recent technology — 3D holographic images.
In the Star Wars franchise, Princess Leia first sent her holographic message in 1977. But exactly four decades later, with its re-emergence in The Last Jedi, we still need glasses to see 3D projections.
This may change with new techniques developed at Brigham Young University (BYU).
Engineer Daniel Smalley and his team at BYU were specifically inspired by Leia’s famous hologram. But he noted that “hologram” is actually a misnomer for what really are volumetric images, which are 3D projections that can be seen from every angle. Holograms, on the other hand, use light-scattering materials on a 2D surface to make flat images look 3D.
Smalley cleverly compared his technique to a “3D printer for light.” Laser beams are used to trap and heat tiny cellulose particles such that the particles can be manipulated. These particles are then moved fast enough that the human eye cannot catch the movement, resulting in the illusion of a solid image. Other lasers then shine red, green and blue light on the particles as they move through space.
Volumetric projections of butterflies, prisms and a figure have been created with this technique.
In real life, this innovation could have useful and exciting applications. In medical imaging, for instance, current technology can only display data in 2D, or in simulated 3D on 2D — the way a hologram works.
Were doctors able to combine the hundreds of images produced by CT and MRI scans in one coherent 3D volumetric display, they might be able to analyze different cross-sections quicker and with higher efficiency or without the frequent eye fatigue that comes with using viewing aids like 3D glasses.
Additionally, volumetric projections can also display images at a much higher resolution than 2D displays can.
Surgeons, with the newly gained ability to interact with 3D imaging programs, could potentially get a clearer idea of how to carry out procedures on specific patients’ bodies before the actual surgery takes place.
The possible advancements are not limited to the medical field.
Other fields that might benefit from volumetric imaging are the aerospace and defense industries. For example, air-traffic controllers might be able to better monitor the spatial distance between aircrafts or even the changing weather conditions. Battlefield commanders would also get better visualizations of the weather and terrain. This ability, in turn, would allow them to make better strategic decisions in a shorter amount of time, reducing the danger that is imposed on personnel and civilian lives. Such an improvement may be especially important as conflict becomes urbanized.