Scientists create 3D projections that display into thin air

Sheri Evans
January 26, 2018

They say their Optical Trap Display is like a 3D printer for light.

Hollywood has been depicting holographic technology for a long time now, perhaps most famously in Star Wars when R2-D2 delivers a message to Princess Leia. Observers can walk around the projections and even place a finger under them. The image of Princess Leia is not what people think it is: It's not a hologram. So effective was this scene that holograms have since appeared throughout the entire saga, with The Force Awakens introducing a particularly cool and particularly enormous hologram of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. What you saw in that moment, however, is not something that a hologram can achieve-it more closely resembles a 3D volumetric image, and researchers at Brigham Young University are hoping to advance that kind of technology. In fact, according to the BYU researchers, the holograms in movies such as Star Wars and Iron Man are in actuality volumetric images. A 3D display is seen from every direction. They've also given their project a name befitting its significance.

"We refer to this colloquially as the Princess Leia project", Smalley said.

Other versions of volumetric display use larger "screens" and "you can't poke your finger into it because your fingers would get chopped off", said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor V. Michael Bove, who wasn't part of the study team but was Smalley's mentor. Holograms are 3D images projected through 2D screens and can only be viewed from so many angles, which doesn't make them truly three-dimensional. To trap and manipulate a particle, the platform uses a laser beam that can then be steered around to move the particle and create a 3D image. In a paper submitted to Nature, he and his team liken the technique to a high-speed Etch-a-Sketch-near-invisible laser beams trap a single particle of a plant fiber called cellulose and heat it unevenly. "We have created a display that can do that".

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Simultaneously illuminating the particle with red green and blue light allows full-colour images to be created, with the eye's visual persistence making the moving spot look like a line, plane or 3D object.

Volumetric images, superior to holograms, scatter light in the same space occupied by the image, which permits 360-degree viewing. Using this 3D light printer, the researchers have already "printed" a butterfly, a prism, the BYU logo, rings that wrap around an arm, and-of course-a Princess Leia-like figure.

"We're providing a method to make a volumetric image that can create the images we imagine we'll have in the future", Smalley said. It's still years away from daily use.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Optical Trap Display is also quite cheap, being made with commercially available parts and low-priced lasers. Furthermore, the volumetric images were very small - not much bigger than the head of a pin - and hard to capture on film.

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