Three-dimensional images that we can see from all directions are the next step up from holograms. To move us toward that goal, researchers from Brigham Young University have developed a new method to create such a 3D display.
The approach is called a free-space volumetric display and uses a technique called optical trapping. As reported in Nature, the team trapped and manipulated little specks of dust in the air to create 3D images.
The new method is different from a hologram. A hologram is the apparent projection of a 3D image on a 2D surface – so if you’re not looking at the surface, you wouldn’t see it. A 3D display is seen from every direction. The most famous pop-culture example of this is obviously Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
“We refer to this colloquially as the Princess Leia project,” lead author and project manager Daniel Smalley said in a statement. “Our group has a mission to take the 3D displays of science fiction and make them real. We have created a display that can do that.”
The researchers used a laser beam to trap a particle, which creates an image point. By steering the laser beam around, it is possible to move the particle and thus create an image. The method allowed them to create full-color visualizations made of 10-micron (one-tenth of standard copy paper) image points.
They were able to create small images like a butterfly, a prism, the university logo, the Pokemon Charmander, rings that wrap around an arm (like seen in the Iron Man movies), the famous Earthrise picture from the Apollo 8 mission, and even one of the authors donning a lab coat and crouching just like Princess Leia.
“We’re providing a method to make a volumetric image that can create the images we imagine we’ll have in the future,” Smalley added.
“This display is like a 3D printer for light. You’re actually printing an object in space with these little particles.”
The team believe that such technology could be used for entertainment purposes, to improve technology, and to help guide medical procedures.
So when can we all have these little gizmos in our lives? The machinery to create such small images is still quite big (like a large lunchbox), so I’m afraid commercial and technical applications are still years away.