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3D Holograms on Your Phone, Coming Not So Soon

3D Holograms on Your Phone, Coming Not So Soon

Photograph by Kar Han Tan

If’s election coverage, Tupac’s resurrection, and the interfaces in Iron Man 2 left you frustrated with the paucity of holograms in your own life, researchers at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) bring good news: compact, affordable 3D video holographic displays may come to your mobile phone. Eventually. If handset engineers get cracking for the next decade.

In a paper released yesterday by the journal Nature, scientists at HP’s Large-Scale Integrated Photonics lab demonstrated a cheap way to project colorful, no-glasses-required 3D images and video on small screens. While current, pricey, spec-free 3D displays require the viewer to stay in a narrow “sweet spot” to get the full effect, HP’s prototype works from a variety of angles, using so-called directional pixels that offer different views as you move. Project a globe on this screen, for example, and new continents will come into view as you circle it. It’s a full-motion hologram effect, and research lead David Fattal knows exactly what you’re thinking: “It’s like the Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars,” he said during a press briefing.

Unlike the pixels you stare at all day, directional pixels are actually arrays of microscopic lenses made by etching tiny ridges into glass, as shown below:

Albert Jeans

Light enters the side of the glass (think of those cheesy edge-lit signs) and is focused through the ridges, which each project a distinct image—say, adjacent views of the globe. As your eyes see two different, adjacent pictures, your brain perceives a three-dimensional object, and it perceives the object to be rotating as you track your eyes further around it. “Unlike a lot of technology that only lets you see 3D when you move your head left and right, you can move your head in any direction and still see a 3D image,” says Fattal. A 3D-equipped phone, he says, could be rotated for a view from almost any angle.

Credit: Fattal et al, Nature

Cheap, portable, with a sweet 1980s William Gibson aesthetic? Sounds great, but don’t get too excited about in-phone Shakurs or Cortanas just yet. “Keep in mind that this was a research project done by physicists,” says lab head Raymond Beausoleil, emphasizing that the technology is still in the prototype stage. “Displays for static images could be built in the relatively near future, but larger video displays would require a significant amount of time and engineering.”

There are a lot of kinks to work out. The 3D effect extends only an inch or so above or below the plane of the display, not exactly at the level of Tony Stark’s basement. And the 3D-video prototype, using a standard LCD screen to project video using the directional pixels, suffered technical problems that disabled 50 of the 64 views, leaving the transitions blurrier and muddying the effect. On the content side, holographic live-action video won’t be possible until someone figures out how to shoot actors from 64 different angles simultaneously (in a practical way). Beausoleil says his ambitions run a little more pragmatic: “We envision people using it for new graphical user interfaces, interactive visualizations, mapping, and pharmaceutical models.”

While you’ll have to wait to receive interstellar pleas on your phone, this paper shows that the basic research is moving along nicely. Now it’s up to mobile device makers to get working on those holo-phones. Help me, Apple (AAPL), Samsung (005930:KS), HTC (2498:TT). You’re my only hope (for cool 3D phone screens).

Applegate is a contributing graphics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @evanapplegate.

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