Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah have made a breakthrough with the creation of a “free-space volumetric display”, capable of reproducing full-colour graphics floating in the air, visible from all angles.

Referred to as “optical trap display” the technology is detailed by Daniel Smalley, BYU electrical and computer engineering professor and holography expert, and his students who have worked with him, in a paper that has been published in Nature.

The Optical Trap Display (OTD) technique:

“uses forces conveyed by a set of near-invisible laser beams to trap a single particle — of a plant fiber called cellulose — and heat it evenly. That allows researchers to push and pull the cellulose around. A second set of lasers projects visible light (red, green and blue) onto the particle, illuminating it as it moves through space. Humans cannot discern images at rates faster than 10 per second, so if the particle is moved fast enough, its trajectory appeas as a solid line — like a sparkler in the dark.”

opticaltrapdisplay

As he explains in this video, Smalley was inspired by the displays of science fiction, in particular the iconic Star Wars' Princess Leia projection.

Smalley points out: 

The image of Princess Leia is not what people think it is: It’s not a hologram. A 3D image that floats in air, that you can walk all around and see from every angle, is actually called a volumetric image.

The difference between a volumetric display and a hologram is that whereas holographic display scatters light only at a 2D surface, a volumetric display has little scattering surfaces scattered throughout the 3D space occupied by the 3D image. So if you are looking at the image you’re are also looking at the scatters and because of this  a volumetric image can be seen from any angle.

 

Butterflies

 

Smalley say's the easiest way to understand what is happening is to think about the images they create like 3D-printed objects.

“This display is like a 3D printer for light. You’re actually printing an object in space with these little particles.”

The images 3D-light-printed by Smalley and his team include a butterfly and an individual in a lab coat crouched in a position similar to Princess Leia as she begins her projected message.opticaltrapdisplay2

 

More Information

Better than a hologram: BYU study produces 3D images that float in 'thin air' 

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