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Chemists create Star Wars-style 3D 'holograms' in a flask of liquid

SMU 3-D Light Pad
Remember the iconic scene from Star Wars, in which R2-D2 projects a hologram of Princess Leia saying, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope?” That’s kind of what researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas have demonstrated with new 3D projection technology that allows for the creation of three-dimensional light structures, viewable from 360 degrees. Just don’t you dare call them holograms!

“A typical hologram will be formed on a plate so when a viewer looks at the front of the plate, a 3D object can be seen,” Alexander Lippert, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, told Digital Trends. “If the viewer looks at the back of the plate, they don’t see the back of the object; they just see the back of the plate. A hologram has a limited viewing angle and doesn’t actually fill a 3D volume of space. A volumetric 3D display — like the one we have developed — truly structures the light in three dimensions. If you walk around the display, you can see the object from different viewing angles. Every voxel is a point of light at a defined point in 3D space.”


At the heart of the team’s volumetric 3D display is a single molecule device called a photoswitch. In the dark, this photoswitch is colorless and nonfluorescent. However, when it is hit with a beam of UV light, the photoswitch turns on. Because of the specific chemistry involved, light emission will only occur at the intersection of a UV light beam and a green light beam. Using digital light processing projectors, the team is able to pattern the light through a flask containing a photoswitch solution, and use it to generate 3D images and animations at the point at which the different wavelengths of light intersect.

“We think there are many real-world applications for this type of display, beyond obvious entertainment applications like 3D TV and 3D gaming,” Lippert said. “This type of display would be well-suited to display medical imaging data from MRI or PET scans. Currently, radiologists have to look at 2D slices of an MRI and try their best to find any anomalies. Integrating this information into a 3D image that can be viewed from multiple angles would make this task much easier. This type of 3D medical image could also help surgeons to plan out a surgery.” Other potential applications might involve imaging for communication and defense — such as tactical 3D battlefield modeling.

“We would very much like to see this display commercialized for industrial and consumer applications, and are currently looking for the right investment and management team to make this a reality,” he concluded. In other words, calling all venture capitalists.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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