A Nanotech Breakthrough Could Generate True Holograms

Transparent rods 500 times thinner than a human hair are bringing us one step closer to free-floating, 3-D images.

It's one of the most iconic images in all of science fiction: Princess Leia, projected as a hologram, pleading with one of the galaxy's last remaining Jedi: "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." Still gives me shivers.

For several decades, optical engineers have been chasing this vision - a genuinely freestanding hologram that can be viewed like a regular object from any direction. No one's been able to quite nail it yet, although some Korean scientists came intriguingly close just last year.

Now comes word from Australia that technicians have developed a nanoscale technology which approaches the problem from a whole new direction.

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) recently disclosed details on their system that projects light through tiny "nanopillars," transparent rods 500 times thinner than a human hair. The device can't project freestanding holograms yet, but the underlying mathematics suggest the breakthrough isn't far off.

It's all about numbers. One of the traditional impediments to generating three-dimensional holograms is that projecting such an image requires the real-time transmission of colossal amounts of data. The most detailed photographs or electronic displays, even those that approximate 3-D, are ultimately still working in two dimensions. Show business holograms like virtual Tupac aren't really holograms at all. They're optical illusions based on ancient stage magic tricks.

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The ANU device doesn't generate holograms just yet, but it does enable the storage and reproduction of the data required to project a hologram. By way of a new kind of optical technology, the ANU platform stores information, in the form of light, within millions of nanoscale pillars. Details past that are scarce, as the team has yet to officially publish their research.

In press materials announcing the new holographic system, lead researcher Lei Wang said science fiction movies directly inspired him to get into this area of research in the first place.

"As a child, I learned about the concept of holographic imaging from the Star Wars movies," Wang, a Ph.D. student at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering, said in a press release. "It's really cool to be working on an invention that uses the principles of holography depicted in those movies."

The research was conducted in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States and Nanjing University in China. And, evidently, The Force.

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