Help me, Obi-Wan: “Optical trap display” technology allows graphics projection into the air
02/05/2018 // David Williams // Views

Out of the many futuristic inventions that have been showcased in various forms of science fiction over the past few decades, one of the most interesting as well as the most pervasive seems to be holographic imaging technology. After all, who wouldn't want to experience the greatness of 3D images floating about in the space that's right in front of you, especially when – as they sometimes are – they can be manipulated with your bare hands?

3D images seemingly floating in mid-air, exactly like in many science fiction stories, is something that has never really been proven to be possible at all in the physical world. But now a small research team from Brigham Young University has presented a paper that details a method to do just that.

According to a report on the paper, the group has somehow successfully managed to develop a "true 3D display" that is said to be capable of projecting images into thin air. They call it a "free-space volumetric display" and all the images that can be shown with it are referred to as "volumetric images."

The technology behind this seemingly miraculous capability is called "optical trap display." What it does is, as the name suggests, trap light in mid-air to show non-holographic 3D images. According to Daniel Smalley, the lead researcher on the project, it's actually a somewhat straightforward process once you get past all of the technical stuff.

"You capture a particle in an invisible, or almost invisible 'tractor beam', then you drag that around to every point of an image," explained Smalley. "When it's in the right place, you shoot it with red, green and blue lasers to make it illuminate, and build up an image point by point, dragging this cellulose particular around as you go."


It's basically like 3D printing with a floating dot in open space, but it's done in extremely high speeds so as to make the images appear consistent and solid to the naked eye. The glow of the tiny particle is what causes a visual image to appear as it goes through the path that's specified by the researchers.

Although it works in concept, the method used by the researchers can't be used for anything larger than the tip of your fingernail. All of the resulting images need to be rendered in high speed, plus they can only be tiny in size and take quite a long time to create. For instance, the researchers manage to create an image of a simple spiral that's visible to the naked eye, but it can't be any bigger than just a couple of millimeters long. More detailed images such as portraits are more complex and take much more time to create – it took 40 seconds to trace out an image of Princess Leia from Star Wars.

In any case, any and all current problems with the technology can eventually be ironed out. This is according to Smalley, who also said that he already has a few options at the ready in case certain issues arise with the use of the technology. The main thing is that the theory behind their research has been shown to be sound, and no longer simply the stuff of science fiction.

"The breakthrough here, I think, is to create a 3D display platform that is capable of creating the images of science fiction," said Smalley. Given enough time, resources, and the proper motivation, it should definitely be doable. But it may take some time for the researchers to get there.

Read more about interesting new technology at

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