Savas Tay/University of Arizona
A holographic three-dimensional image of an ethane molecule.
Scientists say they've taken a small step toward being able to make 3-D holographic movies.
That kind of technology might look familiar to fans of the movie Star Wars, which features R2-D2 beaming out a fuzzy, special-effects "hologram" of Princess Leia pleading, "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."
"This is our dream, to be able to make something like that," says Nasser Peyghambarian of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Holograms are nothing new — you might have one on your credit card. But, Peyghambarian says, unlike the holographic Princess Leia, real-life holograms aren't dynamic.
"They're beautiful, they're there, but they cannot be changed," he says.
So Peyghambarian and his colleagues recently developed a special kind of plastic film. With this film, they can use the regular old method of making a hologram with lasers to capture an image.
But with this material, the image isn't permanent. They can use another laser process to erase it.
"Imagine that you're sitting down and you're looking at this three-dimensional image," Peyghambarian says. "And then, a few seconds later, the image is gone."
It just fades away. The researchers can then record a new holographic image on their display panel, which is small — about 4 inches by 4 inches.
This week, in the journal Nature, they show several different temporary holograms displayed on this panel, including images of a toy car, a human skull and a brain.
Other researchers who study materials' optical properties are impressed. Joseph Perry, a scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says this is a real advance, though he cautions that it does take a few minutes to make the screen blank and build a new image.
"So it's not quite real-time," Perry says, "but you can write a new image and that is a big step moving towards that goal of having a holographic 3-D movie."
Perry says a lot of people want compelling 3-D displays that they can enjoy without wearing clunky glasses.
"There's anticipation of sizeable commercial markets," he says, "in the medical field, in the military, and in entertainment."
He expects those potential markets to create a lot of competition to find technologies that will add that extra dimension.