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This light-warping tech is straight out of Star Wars

Contributed by
Sep 3, 2019, 7:23 AM EDT (Updated)

Holograms may still exist in the realm of science fiction (for now), but R2-D2’s 3D projections may be coming to Earth because of another technology that seems as if it came from far, far away.

Droid tech was what inspired chemist Alexander Lippert ever since he was mesmerized by that scene from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in which R2 projects a three-dimensional image of Leia pleading to Obi-Wan for help. He became obsessed with a way to somehow bring this to life. What was Leia’s only hope is now a mind-blowing method of manipulating light that may not be an actual hologram, but is just as futuristic.

"As a kid, I kept trying to think of a way to invent this," said Lippert. "Then, once I got a background in chemistry molecules that interact with light, and an understanding of photoswitches, it finally dawned on me that I could take two beams of light and use chemistry to manipulate the emission of light."

Unlike a hologram projected into thin air by some robotic appendage, Lippert’s technology structures light to create striking 3D visualizations that go way beyond 3D glasses. Watching a movie with those on convinces your brain it’s seeing 3D by showing each eye two different images. This display is no trick of light. It uses a special molecule able to undergo photoswitching, or switching between fluorescent and nonfluorescent modes as UV light is switched on and off. As if that doesn’t sound sci-fi enough, when UV rays actually hit the molecule, it can generate its own light when another beam of visible light is zapped at it.

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3D Pong video game animation projected into a flask of liquid solvent. 

We've used chemistry to structure light in three actual dimensions,” Lippert explained. “So, no tricks — just a real three-dimensional light structure. We call it a '3D digital light photoactivatable dye display,' or '3D Light Pad' for short, and it's much more like what we see in real life."

Now imagine tons of these molecules giving off that same effect in a transparent liquid solvent as they are activated and deactivated. Suddenly, you’re seeing a 3D animation inside that cylinder of liquid, or “volumetric display.” Even more unreal is how you would see different sides of the projection or animation depending on where you were observing it from. The LightPad could save lives by viewing MRI scans from every angle to detect cancer and other potentially fatal abnormalities. It could also mean a special effects revolution for everything from movies to video games to amusement parks.

Lippert and his team are now pushing even farther into the future by working toward a solid-cube table display and even a potential aerosol display that would project an image onto droplets sprayed in the air. R2 has nothing on this.


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