November 13, 2010

Star Wars-like holograms may beam your way soon

Ever since Princess Leia appeared as a video hologram in "Star Wars," pleading for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi, scientists have been pondering how to make the technology real.

See the new hologram technology

But they have been hampered by the difficulties of re-creating a lifelike, fast-moving image, including the need for better laser technology and an approach that required less computer power.

Now, a science team led by the University of Arizona has made a breakthrough with a 3-D holographic system that creates moving images in near real-time without the need for special glasses. The technology, featured today on the cover of Nature, is a step closer to being able to videoconference in 3-D holograms some day.

"It's no longer science fiction," said Nasser Peyghambarian, the study's co-author and an optical-sciences professor at UA.

The three-dimensional video holograms take a person or an object in one location and transport the image to another location. On one end, 16 cameras take pictures from multiple angles, then the images are sent over the Internet. On the other end, the images are fitted together using a computer program. Then, a unique plastic screen refracts light from lasers to reproduce the image.

Several people were used to test the images in the lab, including Pierre-Alexandre Blanche, a UA research assistant professor and the study's lead author.

"Usually, science is not that much fun. You collect data," he said. "But here, it's very visual. I can talk to my friends, who are not scientists, and they know what I'm doing."

Holograms projecting a 3-D stationary image have been around for years. In the past two decades, scientists have been making gradual progress in creating video holograms.

Video holograms are especially striking because, depending on where you look or stand, the perspectives created are close to what you see in your natural surroundings.

The technology has many practical applications. You could give a business presentation from Arizona and have your 3-D image broadcast to colleagues in another city. A college professor could teach a class while "standing" in your living room. Advertisers could project the 3-D image of a car or a sharply dressed model in the middle of a mall. People who view the image could move around and see different sides of the person or object.

Scientists say it will likely be at least seven to 10 years before the technology is available to the public.

Right now, the images aren't projected fast enough to be displayed continuously, as was the case in Princess Leia's plea for help in the 1977 movie. In 2008, UA succeeded in increasing the speed with which the image is updated to every four to five minutes. Now, with improvements in lasers and plastic material, the image is updated every two seconds.

Researchers are working to increase this to 30 frames per second. The maximum size is a 17-inch screen. Researchers want a larger display of 6 to 8 feet so humans could be projected as their actual size. Those details are expected to take another couple of years to work out.

Ultimately, "I don't think there's any fundamental physics that would prevent us from getting there," said Peyghambarian, whose research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

by Anne Ryman The Arizona Republic Nov. 4, 2010 12:00 AM

Star Wars-like holograms may beam your way soon

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