Star Wars-Style Moving 3D Holograms are Close to Reality

More than 30 years after the famous Star Wars movie scene in which a hologram of Princess Leia appealed for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi, US scientists claim this fantasy is very close to reality.

Luke Skywalker and Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi look at a hologram of Princess Leia in a scene from the original 1977 "Star Wars" film. Photo: LucasFilm Ltd & TM

More than 30 years after the famous scene from the first Star Wars movie in which a hologram of Princess Leia appealed for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi, US scientists have unveiled holographic technology to transmit and view moving 3D images.

They say that holography has just gained a fourth dimension, bringing the prospect of Star Wars-style holographic telepresence into the real world.

A University of Arizona team in Tuscon with leading scientist Nasser Peyghambarian and with researchers at the Nitto Denko Technical Corporation in Oceanside, California say they have devised the world’s first practical 3D transmission system that can make a holographic display appear in another place and update it in near real-time.

“Holographic telepresence means we can record a three-dimensional image in one location and show it in another location, in real-time, anywhere in the world,” said Nasser Peyghambarian, project leader.

“This advance brings us a step closer to the ultimate goal of realistic holographic telepresence with high-resolution, full-colour, human-size, 3D images that can be sent at video refresh rates from one part of the world to the other,” he added.

Study co-author and project lead Nasser Peyghambarian of the University of Arizona, Tucson, the director of NSF's multi-institution Engineering Research Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN). Photo: University of Arizona

The research is published in the journal Nature. The group tells the journal Nature that the development has huge potential, from telemedicine and teleconferencing to mass entertainment.

“We foresee many applications, for example in manufacturing,” said Professor Nasser Peyghambarian from Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences.

He continued: “Car manufacturers or airplane manufacturers could look at holograms and design their systems in real time. They could look at 3D models and make changes as they go.”

Existing 3D projection systems produce either static holograms with excellent depth and resolution but no movement, such as Avatar or the election-night “hologram” of a CNN reporter in 2008, which give the perspective from one viewpoint only and do not allow the viewer to walk around the image.

At the heart of the new system is a laser that burns an image on a screen every two seconds, making it the first to achieve a speed that can be described as “quasi-real-time” by Dr Pierre-Alexandre Blanche, co-author.

Dr Peyghambarian and colleagues had previously demonstrated a refreshable polymer display system, but it could refresh images only once every four minutes.

An image of an F4 Phantom fighter jet created with the new 3D telepresence system. Photo: University of Arizona

The new system can refresh images every two seconds – more than one hundred times faster – thanks to a new ‘photographic’ polymer developed by the California research labs of Nitto Denko, the Japanese electronic materials company.

To demonstrate its potential for telepresence applications, Peyghambarian and colleagues photographed an object from 16 different angles with conventional video cameras.

Computers then converted the video images into the form needed to make a hologram, and sent that information to a “receiver” some distance away using standard Ethernet communication protocols.

The receiver contains a laser that interpreted the image data to “write” 100 holographic stripes into the 10-centimetre-square chunk of plastic over a period of 2 seconds.

Next, a red, green and blue LEDs illuminated the plastic, recreating the phase, direction and amplitude of light waves reflected off the original object and forming a colour 3D holographic replica.

But the researchers are confident that, now they have proved the concept, it will be possible to develop a full-colour system large enough to capture the human body and fast enough to give smooth movements.

Team member Vivian Sieh holds up the photorefractive polymer that has enabled the new 3D telepresence system to achieve a two-second refresh rate. Photo: University of Arizona

“An image like Princess Leia “is no longer science fiction, it is something you can do today”, Dr. Peyghambarian said at a press conference. However, he added it would take at least seven to 10 years’ work before a consumer version of the system was ready to test in people’s homes.

The technology is insensitive to vibration and could be used in noisy industrial environments for product design and manufacturing.

Telemedicine, especially for brain surgery, is another application. “Surgeons at different locations around the world could use the technique to observe in three dimensions, in real time, and to participate in the surgical procedure,” the researchers say.

Prof Peyghambarian was enthusiastic about 3D teleconferencing. “Let’s say I want to give a presentation in New York,” he said. “All I need is an array of cameras here in my Tucson office and a fast internet connection. At the other end, in New York, there would be the 3D display using our laser system.

“Everything is fully automated and controlled by computer. As the image signals are transmitted, the lasers inscribe them into the screen and render them into a three-dimensional projection of me speaking,” he said. [Nature, University of Arizona and NSF via Telegraph (UK) and New Scientist]

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