3D printing with light: Scientists create 3D holograms

Inspired by Star Wars, researchers have developed solid-looking, clean, 3D holograms.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Scientists have taken the idea of three-dimensional holograms from science fiction and have made them a reality through 3D printing techniques.

The clean, solid, interactive holograms portrayed in movies including Star Wars and television shows such as Star Trek are worlds away from our current reality.

Holograms are often thin, render poorly, and the equipment required to produce them is both time-consuming to set up and expensive.

However, in what is fondly dubbed the "Princess Leia project," scientists from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah have created holograms far closer to our science fiction.

On Wednesday, the team, led by computer engineering professor and holography expert Daniel Smalley, explained how their version of 3D image projection is superior to current alternatives -- and it has all been made possible through techniques similar to 3D printing.

"Our group has a mission to take the 3D displays of science fiction and make them real," Smalley said. "We have created a display that can do that."

While a holographic display scatters light only at a two-dimensional surface, the team focused on creating what is called a "volumetric image," which is a three-dimensional image that floats in the air and can be seen from every angle.

Volumetric images, superior to holograms, scatter light in the same space occupied by the image, which permits 360-degree viewing.

Smalley and his team's platform utilizes a laser beam to trap particles, and this laser can be steered to move particles and generate an image. The lasers and device used to control the image are no bigger than a child's lunchbox.

The free-space platform produces full-color images with 10-micron image points by persistence of vision -- in other words, in extreme detail and precision.

"This display is like a 3D printer for light," Smalley said. "You're actually printing an object in space with these little particles."

The scientists have tested the display method by creating a butterfly, prism, the BYU logo, and rings. An additional test created a person in a lab coat -- and in a hat-tip to Star Wars, they were crouched in a position similar to Princess Leia as she began her projected message.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

While the team did not provide any details on future experiments, the platform provides insight into how we may project images in the future. The possibilities are endless for solid holograms, with potential uses including entertainment and instruction.

"We're providing a method to make a volumetric image that can create the images we imagine we'll have in the future," Smalley said.

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