Holograms: science just went there

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May 19, 2017, 10:02 AM EDT

If you thought holographic images were the stuff of Star Wars and Tony Stark, they’ve just jumped out from the realm of science fiction into real science.

Before you start flailing at the possibility of owning a holographic map of New York City or an R2-D2 model with a working projector that replays recorded scenes in 3D, this is still very much a work in progress—but we’re now closer than ever.  

Freestanding holograms have long been a holy grail for optical engineers. Bringing that aspect of Stark Technologies to your fingertips would involve an instrument that would not need a solid projection surface to produce a virtual 3D image in thin air. While true holograms like this still elude us, a research team at Australia’s RMIT University led by Min Gu of the Laboratory of Artificial-Intelligence Nanophotonics and CUDOS (Centre for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems) have developed something that will make you wonder if you’re seeing things.

“Our work paves a way towards integrating holography with flat electronic devices for optical imaging, data storage and information security,” said Gu, who recently published a paper on this futuristic technology in the journal Nature.

By manipulating light on the nano scale to trick the eye into seeing things in three dimensions without 3D glasses, the material dreamed up by Gu and his colleagues makes it possible to encode an entire universe of visual information into just about any device or display you can dream of. Nanotechnology that drastically downsizes individual projection elements makes you believe you’re seeing space princesses or supervillains or anything else as you would on the big screen. It may someday end up on the surface of all your gadgets, including smartphones, tablets and TVs.

These images are more like those trippy holographic stickers from the ‘80s and ‘90s (admit it, you collected those things) than freestanding holograms. The type of hologram that ended up saving Leia would need a contraption that projects a distinct light field over the display surface. Gu’s material has no such light field, but makes you think you’re seeing in 3D because the phase shift effect is amped to a resolution ridiculously higher than that of your prized unicorn sticker.

You can see the holographic image at a certain angle range and you don't have to look directly at the screen,” Gu explained. “If the pixel size of the hologram is smaller, the view angle of the reconstructed image will be larger.”

While Gu has no idea when this material will make an appearance on your smartphone, consider your mind officially blown.

(via Seeker)