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Not a Hologram: Volumetric Displays from Star Wars

Making the 3D Displays of Star Wars and other sci-fi entities real.

Published onSep 23, 2019
Not a Hologram: Volumetric Displays from Star Wars

“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

When you think of holograms, chances are you also think of one of the most iconic scenes in sci-fi history. Luke accidentally stumbles across this message from Princess Leia as he is cleaning R2-D2. Upon realizing the message might be intended for that “crazy old man,” he takes the droids to Ben to see what all the fuss is about. Little did he know those two droids and that message would change his life forever.

What you probably didn’t know about this scene, however, is that this new technology that was showcased as being fairly normal in the Star Wars universe, has been deemed with the wrong term in our pop culture-ruled world. The image of Leia was NOT a hologram, but another type of 3D display. Let me teach you the proper term: volumetric display.

We’ll save the bulk of the nitty gritty details for later, but a real hologram is actually quite different than what modern culture tells you is a hologram. A true hologram is just the interference pattern of light recorded or displayed somehow. Most true holograms are static images that preserve depth information as the viewer moves about the display. Volumetric displays are more of a projection of light into mid-air, but lacks the 3D cue of occlusion (part of the image can block out other parts of the image). Again, we can talk about these differences, later, but for quick reference:

Not a hologram.

Not a hologram.

Not a hologram.

A real hologram.

A real “rainbow” hologram. (Rest in peace, Dr. Benton)

Real holograms displayed on a holographic video monitor.

My apologies. Somewhat unnecessary rant about what is and isn’t a hologram over. Just remember that Star Wars uses volumetric displays, not holograms.

Now, on to the whole point of this post. What if I told you that this type of volumetric display technology was successfully being developed right now? Well, it is! As exciting as that sounds, there is quite a bit of work to be done to match the impressive displays as shown in Star Wars and other sci-fi mediums.

Photophoretic-trap volumetric display as developed by Daniel Smalley (former OBM and Media Lab alum) at Brigham Young University.

My proposal is to take this budding technology and add to it. In the world of Star Wars, we see various uses of this display technology, in many shapes and sizes. I propose to take this idea and shrink it down to something more portable and handheld:

Jedi have the coolest toys.

The Sith do, too, apparently.

And now they’re standard military issue, I guess…

While the current technology is still being refined, it would be an interesting experiment to shrink some optical systems down to a somewhat portable size. With my background in optics and electrical engineering, this would be a fun challenge to work on something that I’m so passionate about.

Some pretty obvious hurdles to overcome with this are finding a laser powerful, yet small enough, to fit in such a small space and still properly trap the particles. Also, shrinking an optical system down to that size is much easier said than done. I still don’t fully understand how the photophoretic-trapping even works, so that could be a major issue. I feel like a Raspberry Pi or something could handle the steering of the laser beams (by rotating the mirrors), but there’s still some uncertainty there. Oh, and did I mention that the whole “photophoretic-trap” thing is pretty much black magic to me?

So, while this project would be phenomenal to work on and get some early prototype working, let me end with a disclaimer: I’d love to make any sort of 3D display technology from science fiction become a reality, so this is just one of many ideas that builds upon already-existing efforts to make this dream come true.


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