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SYFY WIRE hologram

3D holographic televisions are much closer than a galaxy far, far away

Horror movies are about to get a lot more frightening.

By Cassidy Ward
Cassidy Sample of holographic images PRESS

For decades we have dreamed of true holographic displays for entertainment, communication, and education. Star Wars had 3D projections rendered in real-time — the definition wasn’t great, but they were communicating across interplanetary distances — and Avatar had holographic maps showcasing the terrain of Pandora. In reality, we mostly have 2D images which show dimension and depth when viewed from different angles. That might be on the verge of changing.

Pierre-Alexandre Blanche from the Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona recently published a paper in Light: Advanced Manufacturing which acts as a roadmap toward true 3D holographic displays.

“3D movies exist already, and the effects are amazing,” Blanche told SYFY WIRE. “But we’re working toward diffraction-based display that will produce all the human visual cues. That’s what’s missing today in the world of 3D display. They’re always missing one or more visual cues.”

True holography is the holy grail of visual media and communication because it’s what we as a species evolved to understand. Our brains do a lot of heavy lifting in converting 2D images into something we interpret as three-dimensional by looking at shadows and the relationships of known objects to figure out where things exist within a space. 3D holographs would do that work for us, providing a richer viewing experience whether in the theater, at home, or in an educational or professional setting.

Blanche is excited about the progress that’s been made in the field over the last few years, and is optimistic that we’re not far off from achieving the ultimate in visual display.

“Holography has made tremendous progress in the last five years, especially in computation thanks to neural networks and artificial intelligence,” Blanche said.

Prior to those advances, computing holographs had to be done through brute force using complex methods like scanning still objects or people with lasers. Now, the same data can be generated from just two cameras.

“We can take a scene and if we have the depth, we can calculate it. We don’t even need all the 3D information, just two cameras and we can extrapolate,” Blanche said.

That will make producing 3D movies and television shows much easier, at least on the production side. Filmmakers won’t need complex arrays of cameras mounted at every angle. Using the handful of cameras already on set will provide more than enough information for generating holograms.

While incredible progress has been made, we’re not yet ready for fully integrated 3D holograms, and that comes down to the technology’s ability — or lack thereof — to crunch the incredible amounts of data present.

A still image is a flat plane without dimension. In terms of holograms, it’s essentially a single point of data. Getting to a 2D hologram is a little more complicated but totally doable. Blanche explained that a still object can be scanned along the plane in something like a thousand slices to generate a 3D photograph. The trouble comes in when you want that image to be viewed from multiple angles or by a viewer in motion.

“If you want parallax, where the viewer moves and sees the 3D information, that means each point of where the viewer can sit needs to be calculated to render the information correctly. That’s a million times more difficult than a still image. That’s what we can’t do right now,” Blanche said.

He estimates that true holographic displays without any compromises might be about 80 years off. Not too long in the scheme of human or even technological existence, but a little late for this year’s holiday shopping.

That number was arrived at by looking at advances in telecommunication, starting with the telegraph and moving forward to modern technologies. Blanche used that progression and extrapolated forward, plugging in improvements in television, computer monitors, and phone displays.

“That number might be controversial, but it’s not set in stone,” Blanche said. “We can move it, push it back and forth, depending on how much research we put into it.”

In the meantime, there are shortcuts we can take to achieve functional holographic displays just short of the real thing. One promising arena for those improvements is that of virtual reality. Because the display is fixed to the viewer, some of the motion concerns are alleviated. Moreover, each eye is already being delivered its own display.

Additionally, assistive technology like 3D glasses can and have been made available for commercial use in the home, but they weren’t readily accepted by consumers. That, to Blanche’s mind, is the real hurdle. While some level of holographic television is already feasible, the use of glasses or having to sit in a specific spot on your couch, feels like stepping backward when it should feel like stepping into the future.

“We are really making serious progress, but there’s still some amount of research that needs to be done,” Blanche said. “I really see a bright future for holography.”

Until we can deliver total immersion without sacrificing comfort, space, or experience we might not see these sorts of technologies enter the home. But they’re coming, and with support from consumers and researchers, it could be sooner than we think.