Boldly Going from Science Fiction to Reality

February 11, 2011

“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

Remember this scene from Star Wars in which R2D2 projects a 3D image of Princess Leia’s plea for help? Thanks to the work of professor Nasser Peyghambarian and his team at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, what used to be science fiction – three-dimensional holographic video imaging – is now close to becoming reality.

Peyghambarian has developed a new type of holographic telepresence that allows the projection of a 3D moving image without the need for special glasses.

Hologaphic imagery – or holographic stereography – has long been able to produce static 3D pictures, but they have not been able to offer a video experience, that is, until now.

"Holographic telepresence means we can record a three-dimensional image in one location and show it in another location, in real-time, anywhere in the world," said Peyghambarian, who led the research effort, a result of collaboration between the UA and Nitto Denko Technical, a company in Oceanside, California.

The key to the technology is a new plastic capable of refreshing holograms every two seconds. In short, 3D images can be “written” on this material at a quasi-real-time speed, allowing the viewer to experience a moving image.

In comparison, standard video plays at a rate of 24 frames per second. While the two-seconds-per-frame experience might be jerky in comparison, Peyghambarian’s group is steadily working towards the ultimate goal of a true 3D video experience.

One of the system's major hallmarks never achieved before is what Peyghambarian calls full parallax: "As you move your head left and right or up and down, you see different perspectives. This makes for a very life-like image. Humans are used to seeing things in 3D."

Currently, the telepresence system can display in one color, but Peyghambarian and his team have already demonstrated multi-color 3D display devices capable of writing images at a faster refresh rate, approaching the smooth transitions of images on a TV screen.

Where might this technology be used? As an example, he imagines the video conference of the future: “Let's say I want to give a presentation in New York. All I need is an array of cameras here in my Tucson office and a fast Internet connection. At the other end, in New York, there would be the 3D display using our laser system. Everything is fully automated and controlled by computer. As the image signals are transmitted, the lasers inscribe them into the screen and render them into a three-dimensional projection of me speaking."

And that is just one application. Someday, the development team imagines, surgeons will be able to use the technology to observe and participate in surgical procedures – in 3D – from anywhere in the world. Holographic telepresence could be used for advertising, updatable 3D maps, entertainment, gaming, and more.

Hang on, Princess Leia, we’re on our way.