Next-Gen Holograms Float, Move in Thin Air

PROVO, Utah, May 9, 2021 (ENS) – Hologram experts can now create real-life images that move in the air. Using lasers to create the displays of science fiction inspired by Star Wars and Star Trek, Brigham Young University’s holography research group can create lightsabers, green for Yoda and red for Darth Vader, naturally, with actual luminous beams rising from them.

The researchers have engineered battles between equally small versions of the Starship Enterprise and a Klingon Battle Cruiser that incorporate photon torpedoes launching and striking the enemy vessel that you can see with the naked eye.

“What you’re seeing in the scenes we create is real; there is nothing computer-generated about them,” said lead researcher Dan Smalley, a professor of electrical engineering at Brigham Young University.

“This is not like the movies, where the lightsabers or the photon torpedoes never really existed in physical space. These are real, and if you look at them from any angle, you will see them existing in that space,” Smalley said.

“Most 3D displays require you to look at a screen, but our technology allows us to create images floating in space – and they’re physical; not some mirage,” Smalley explained. “This technology can make it possible to create vibrant animated content that orbits around or crawls on or explodes out of everyday physical objects.”

Hologram of a Pokemon figure jumps from a hologram sphere at the Brigham Young University Hologram Lab, 2020 (Photo courtesy BYU)

Smalley and his team grabbed national and international attention three years ago when they figured out how to draw screenless, free-floating objects in space. Called optical trap displays, these displays are created by trapping a single particle in the air with a laser beam and then moving that particle around, leaving behind a laser-illuminated path that floats in midair, like a “a 3D printer for light.”

The research group’s new project, funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, goes to the next level and produces simple animations in thin air.

The development paves the way for an immersive experience where people can interact with holographic-like virtual objects that co-exist in their immediate space.

To demonstrate that principle, the team has created virtual stick figures that walk in thin air. They were able to demonstrate the interaction between their virtual images and humans by having a student place a finger in the middle of the volumetric display and then film the same stick figure walking along and jumping off that finger.

Smalley and Rogers detail these and other recent breakthroughs in a new paper published in the journal “Nature Scientific Reports” this month.

The work overcomes a limiting factor to optical trap displays. While this technology lacks the ability to show virtual images, Smalley and Rogers show it is possible to simulate virtual images by employing a time-varying perspective projection backdrop.

“We can play some fancy tricks with motion parallax and we can make the display look a lot bigger than it physically is,” Rogers said. “This methodology would allow us to create the illusion of a much deeper display up to theoretically an infinite size display.”

Featured Image: A tiny Starship Enterprise fires on a tiny Klingon Battle cruiser with real animated images created in thin air. 2020 (Photo courtesy Brigham Young University)

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