Fairy Lights and Holodecks

Sony has teamed up with universities all over Japan to push this iconic element of science fiction into the real world.  A team of research scientists from universities all over Japan has teamed up with Sony to refine their original prototype in-air 3D display to the next level. They’ve submitted their paper for SIGGRAPH 2015, the annual meeting of the greatest minds in the field of computer graphics, taking place this year in Los Angeles in August. What they have is astonishing: it’s a femtopulse laser projection system that can  convert the air itself into a glowing plasma that you can actually touch.

The following video is meant to explain what conference goers would see if they attended the presentation. The holograms presented are tiny, but  it’s no less impressive for the size. Casually dubbed “fairy lights”, these images are produced in mid air by interference pattern convergence as controlled by tiny galvano mirrors. These are the same kind of little mirrors used in DLP projectors. The tiny points of light created are called “voxels”, which is short for “volumetric pixels”. The resolution of the device is measured both in spatial terms and temporal terms, in “voxels per second”.

We don’t have holodecks like those on the starship Enterprise yet. Thanks to the efforts of the engineers behind the Oculus Rift and the Microsoft Hololens, and spatial sensor technology like the Leap Motion device and Google’s Soli, we’ve been edging closer to that achievement. The visual parts require you to wear something bulky on your face, though, and none of this stuff really integrates all that well with the other pieces that would create the impression of an object in space created from pure light. What we have here is touchable light, in 3D, in the air, without the need for special glasses or a projection medium.

The resulting holograms are tiny – really tiny – hence the monicker “fairy lights”.  The researchers say it’s scaleable, though, and the stuff that takes up a whole bench full of optics to do this year might fit in an Altoids tin next year.

Let that sink in a while.

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