Look, no holograms: but still a moving image floats in space

3D hologram in'Rogue One A Star Wars Story

Look, no holograms: but still a moving image floats in space

However, there's one piece of the science fiction puzzle that continues to elude innovators: true three-dimensional holograms similar to what we've seen in the Star Wars franchise. The iconic scene includes the line still famous 40 years later: "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope". In this way, the researchers were able to create 3D light animations in the air. In a paper published this week in Nature, Smalley details the method he has developed to do so.

"We refer to this colloquially as the Princess Leia project", lead author and project manager Daniel Smalley said in a statement. "But really, a hologram can not make the Princess Leia image, or the Avatar table, or the Iron Man display".

First things, first, Smalley says.

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. A 3D image that floats in air, that you can walk all around and see from every angle, is actually called a volumetric image. Examples of volumetric images include the 3D displays Tony Stark interacts with in Ironman or the massive image-projecting table in Avatar. 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.

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Three-dimensional images that we can see from all directions are the next step up from holograms.

But is it possible to create a volumetric image like the one seen in Star Wars, clear and visible from all angles?

Prof Smalley and his colleagues have devised a free-space volumetric display platform, based on photophoretic optical trapping, that produces full-colour, aerial volumetric images with 10μm image points by persistence of vision.

"We're using a laser beam to trap a particle, and then we can steer the laser beam around to move the particle and create the image", said undergrad coauthor Erich Nygaard.

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Prof Smalley said the easiest way to understand what they are doing is to think about the images they create like 3D-printed objects. "You're actually printing an object in space with these little particles".

So far Smalley and his student researchers have 3D-light printed a butterfly, a prism, the BYU logo, rings that wrap around an arm and an individual in a lab coat crouched in a position similar to Princess Leia as she begins her projected message.

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.

The researchers used a laser beam to trap a particle, which creates an image point.

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Initially, Smalley thought gravity would make the particles fall and make it impossible to sustain an image, but the laser light energy changes air pressure in a way to keep them aloft, he said.

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