Jan 25, 2018 | By Benedict

Researchers from Brigham Young University have devised a free-space volumetric display platform, based on photophoretic optical trapping, that produces full-color, aerial volumetric images with 10-micron image points. They say their Optical Trap Display is like a 3D printer for light.

Of all the weird and wonderful gizmos seen in the original Star Wars movies, one piece of sci-fi tech continues to fascinate real-world scientists the world over. Not hyperdrive, not lightsabers, not even AT-AT Walkers, but something that appears almost mundane in that crazy galaxy far, far away: holograms.

In the first Star Wars movie, lovable droid R2-D2 projects a hologram of Princess Leia issuing a rescue plea to the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi. The 3D image of Leia appears to float in space, and is not projected onto a screen or other flat surface. So effective was this scene that holograms have since appeared throughout the entire saga, with The Force Awakens introducing a particularly cool and particularly gigantic hologram of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke.

Funnily enough, it turns out that the Princess Leia hologram, perhaps the most famous hologram in movie history, isn’t technically a hologram at all. It should actually be called a “volumetric image,” a 3D image that floats in thin air and which can be seen from every angle. (A holographic display, which is easier to make, scatters light only at a 2D surface.)

But is it possible to create a volumetric image like the one seen in Star Wars, clear and visible from all angles? That’s what’s been intriguing scientists for decades, some coming closer than others, and now a group of Brigham Young University researchers think they’ve cracked it. They’ve also given their project a name befitting its significance.

“We refer to this colloquially as the Princess Leia project,” says Daniel Smalley, the BYU electrical and computer engineering professor leading the research. "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.”

Smalley and the BYU team have devised a free-space volumetric display platform, based on photophoretic optical trapping, that produces full-color, aerial volumetric images with 10-micron image points by persistence of vision. 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.

When not referring to the project by its fun codename, the researchers technically label their system an “Optical Trap Display,” so called because of the photophoretic trap used to isolate a cellulose particle through spherical and astigmatic aberrations. To make an image, this trap and particle are then scanned through a display volume while being illuminated with red, green, and blue light.

It’s unmistakably a kind of light display system, but Smalley says it can also be thought of as a kind of “3D printer for light,” producing a three-dimensional image in free space with a large color gamut, fine detail, and low apparent speckle. 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.

While others have produced Leia-like projections before, this research is still pretty important, being the first use of optical trapping and lasers to effectively create volumetric images. “We're providing a method to make a volumetric image that can create the images we imagine we'll have in the future,” Smalley says.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Optical Trap Display is also quite cheap, being made with commercially available parts and low-cost lasers. Excitingly, that means Star Wars-like holograms—sorry, volumetric images—could be beamed into your home sooner rather than later.

The research, documented in a paper titled “A photophoretic-trap volumetric display,” has been published in Nature.

 

 

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