Picture a beaded string curtain, but one in which every bead is a tiny light, called a “voxel” or “LED neuron.” By switching these lights off and on in different combinations, the bead curtain becomes a kind of screen that’s able to display two-dimensional animations. Now imagine if, instead of simply having the one screen of beaded threads, you had 100 of them, positioned one in front of the other like an outward-facing display in a store. Each layer shows a slightly different image so that, by carefully coordinating each voxel, you can create not just a 2D animation but a 3D volumetric shape, conveying depth.
This is what a European startup called LED Pulse has created. LED Pulse, which is run by a 47-year-old artist-entrepreneur called Danilo Grande who lives in Spain, is building a new type of volumetric display that’s unlike just about any other you’ll find.
A volumetric display refers to the dream of building a visual representation of an object in three physical dimensions, rather than the planar image of traditional screens. Such screens have been the long-time goal of engineers, science fiction writers, artists, and a bevy of others since 2D photography became a reality and, thus, receded from the dreamscape of the not-yet-possible.
“A satisfying and effective three-dimensional image is not a technological specification, it is a historical inevitability,” wrote Stephen Benton, the late Massachusetts Institute of Technology pioneer who dedicated much of his career to achieving this dream. Benton passed away in November 2003 and, despite his considerable efforts in this domain, mainstream three-dimensional images have not yet phase-shifted from inevitable to readily available.
In recent years, there have been a number of different approaches to building volumetric displays. Digital Trends has covered many of them. A report from market analysts at ResearchAndMarkets believes the market will be worth $1.7 billion by 2027. But despite these optimistic projections, the technology has yet to be perfected.
LED Pulse’s approach — bearing the fearsome (and faintly anime) name DragonO — is a particularly impressive one. Its individual, err, Dragons are measured in cuboids, with each cuboid being three cubic meters, featuring a total of 24,000 voxels distributed throughout. Cuboids can be stacked up in a modular fashion to make even bigger screens. The biggest they have done so far is composed of six cuboids, sporting 144,000 voxels. Dragons have been displayed in Paris, Amsterdam, Dubai, Cannes, and elsewhere.
“When I was, maybe, 10 years old, my master was Carl Sagan,” Grande told Digital Trends. “You remember Cosmos? I was living in Colombia in those days. My school [life] was really traumatic. But every day I came out of school and watched television. There were only three channels, and one was an educational one. Every day at 3 p.m., Cosmos was there. In one of the chapters, Carl Sagan explains the relationship between 3D reality and 2D reality. It made me think of that, that [building a volumetric display] could be just a matter of creating flat videos, one after the other, then synchronizing these flat videos in order to create a three-dimensional reality out of bi-dimensional realities in sequence. That’s how it all started.”
“You can watch from 360 degrees, and every degree will have a different perception, just like in the real world.”
What makes LED Pulse’s volumetric display impressive is that, unlike some of the ostensibly 3D projections out there (which are often just variations on the old Pepper’s Ghost illusion that dates back to Victorian times) it is genuinely three-dimensional. Remember the famous Tupac Shakur “hologram” from Coachella? While certainly impressive, it was not really 3D in any meaningful sense. Viewing it from different angles would not give you a different perspective of the performance any more than watching a television from an angle would change the perspective of what you see on screen.
Dragon is different. “You can watch from 360 degrees, and every degree will have a different perception, just like in the real world,” said Grande. “This means that these are real volumetric objects, with every voxel in the same location that the real volume would be. So if you have a volumetric human made out of light, and you walk around the back, you will see their back. If you go to the left, you will see the left arm. It’s all exactly how it would be in the real world. Every time we create an exhibition, we invite people to walk around, not to stay in one place only.”
Any 3D model can be beamed into a Dragon display. The system supports “any conventional platform” for building three-dimensional objects, and can then easily be converted into a sequence of lights to present the volumetric form in question. This can all be done in real-time. It’s even possible to have the system controlled remotely by different users, opening up the possibility of multiplayer volumetric gaming.
The application Grande is currently most excited about is a Star Trek-inspired use-case in which humans could be “transported” from one location to another, appearing as a shimmering three-dimensional shape to, perhaps, give a talk or perform a concert. “We can’t teleport matter yet,” reads the company’s website. “But now it is possible to teleport energy, light, information, and, mainly, ideas. Teleportation starts from our willingness to move and exists without limitations. The ideas are pure energy that travels from mind to mind — transforming and improving, and evolving. This time this energy will have a defined human shape made out of tridimensional light.”
If you ever wondered about a more spectacular — and way trippier — future Zoom, you may have your answer right here! (Whether a practical desktop version will ever exist is another question entirely, however.)
“Of course, we see many possibilities of practical usage of the volumetric display in endless ways,” Grande said. “But, [right now], we have to be humble about the current state of it. For now, it is an artistic experience, it’s a contemplative experience, and it’s a creative, collective experience. This is where we want to focus. We want to show this to as many creative people as possible so that they can help transform the format [beyond anything we can currently imagine.] If you can give energy to the format, the format will take its own roads, and find its own destiny.”
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