Everyone loves a good hologram, right? Ever since we saw a tiny Darth Vader delivering orders to an Imperial officer in Star Wars: A New Hope, the idea of having a 3D chat with a friend has lived on in our minds— Well, my mind, at least. On last night’s episode of Knight Rider, Zoe made a rendering of an entire street, with a moving car, and had it float in the air in front of Michael Knight and co. Now we know she was showing off her computer prowess to justify why she got to be Billy’s boss, but I had to wonder whether such a thing is possible.
Very nearly. The first Heliograph display was shown off to the world in 2003. The device takes a 2D image from a computer, and projects it, still in 2D, into free floating space above the projector. The company’s website says it will render text down to a six point font, and it will project images up to 100″. (They also have an extensive videos page, for those who want to see demonstrations.) It only has a viewing angle of 150 degrees, so it’s not fully Star-Wars-ized, but it’s getting there (images even flicker just like the way they do in Star Wars!. Pushing beyond the bounds of 1978 SciFi, the Heliograph allows people to reach into the projection and turn the image around in their hands, and last year the company announced an upgrade model that renders in Hi-Def.
IO2 Technologies plays it very coy when explaining how the thing works. Here’s what I gleaned from press accounts and their websites (Google Scholar failed me on this one):
From the New York Times, quoting inventor Chad Dyner:
“All I can say is that it’s a very simple system, using conventional air,” he said by telephone from Cambridge, Mass. “Essentially, the device converts the imaging properties of the air so that the air is taken in, converted instantaneously, and then re-ejected out. Then we’re projecting onto that converted air.”
In a later article, Dyner indicated to that the projection can be compared to an ink jet printer, since it projects onto particles in the air.
From I02’s website: “The Heliodisplay includes patented and proprietary technology to create an almost invisible tri-layered out of phase field to generate the surface required to accept projection of video or images into free-space.”
Anyone smarter than me who has speculation on how it works should comment, because I’d love to know.
There’s still any number of challenges keeping us from calling up Han Solo and inviting his 3D image over for brunch: the device is not yet truly 3D, the low-end model will cost $16,200, and of course, Han Solo is fictional. But doesn’t it seem like inventing the free floating image is the hard part?