Creating Star Wars-Like Volumetric Displays

Princess Leia appears in a volumetric display in "A New Hope"

Despite their ubiquity in science fiction, volumetric displays — three-dimensional displays visible from any angle — have been tough to create in real life. But a team from the University of Sussex has made impressive strides using a system based on acoustic levitation.

Here’s how it works: an array of ultrasonic speakers levitates and moves small plastic beads at up to 9 m/s. Simultaneously, LED lights project colors onto the sphere. Thanks to the human brain’s ability to create persistent images from the motion, we’re able to see simple displays like the figure-8 and smiley face above with the naked eye. To form something more complicated, like the spinning globe seen in the final image, the bead must be filmed using a camera with a slow shutter speed. But with that, the display looks incredible.

There’s obviously a ways to go before your R2 unit can project holographic messages for you, but all the basic ingredients for that technology are here. Check out the coverage on Scientific American and the original research paper for more. (Image credit: Star Wars – Lucasfilm; others – E. Jankauskis; research credit: R. Hirayama et al.; via SciAm

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