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Scientists have figured out how to project 3D images into thin air, Star Wars style

Scientists are coming close to realizing that iconic 3D hologram scene from the movie Star Wars, reported a Daily Mail article. And instead of projected light, they’re controlling dust-sized particles to make 3D imagery that promises to do one better than current holographic technology.

Published in the science journal Nature, the study (aptly titled “The Princess Leia Project”) is akin to “printing something in space, just erasing it very quickly,” as explained by lead author Daniel Smalley.

He and his research team demonstrated the efficacy of their newly developed technology. First, they generated the image of a tiny butterfly fluttering above a finger, followed by a colorful prism.

The last image they created was a graduate student replicating Princess Leia’s famous holographic plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Holographic technology is already in fairly widespread use. But this new technique is that much closer to the 3D holographic projections seen in Star Wars. (Related: The Medicine of Light: How 3D Holography Is Revolutionising the Medical Industry.)

Even competitors are impressed by the accomplishments of Smalley’s team. “The way they do it is really cool,” admitted Curtis Broadbent from the University of Rochester.

“You can have a circle of people stand around it and each person would be able to see it from their own perspective,” he pointed out. “And that’s not possible with a hologram.”

Three sci-fi movies’ worth of inspiration

Smalley is an electrical engineering professor at Brigham Young University. He explained that his team uses laser light to manipulate the particles into serving as 3D screens.

While the concept is similar to the tractor beam seen in Star Wars or its fellow science-fiction franchise Star Trek, the inspiration for this development traces its genesis to a different blockbuster movie.

In the first Iron Man movie, the character Tony Stark is shown sliding his arm into a holographic glove. In real life, however, Stark’s arm would disrupt the projection.

Smalley compared the shift from holograms to volumetric display (the official technical term for his team’s technology) to the transition from a traditional two-dimensional printer to a three-dimensional printer.

“All of the magic is happening on a 2-D surface,” he said regarding the way holograms trick the eye and the brain.

His team’s technology, on the other hand, relies on capturing and moving the particles around obstacles (i.e., the arm of the character played by Robert Downey, Jr.)

That way, Smalley concluded, “The arm is no longer in the way.”

An initial concern was that gravity would pull the floating particles down and disrupt the 3D image. But Smalley’s team found out that the energy imparted by the laser light generated a change in air pressure that sufficed to support the particles.

Volumetric display technology normally uses bigger particles as “screens” for their projections, explained Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor V. Michael Bove. “You can’t poke your finger into it because your fingers would get chopped off,” he warned.

His students employed a much smaller and safer device. According to Professor Bove, it’s only somewhat bigger than a kid’s lunchbox.

The technology still needs years of work. But its creators are already looking forward.

In another study published in Nature, Smalley hoped to create larger images using multiple beams from a refined version of his team’s device.

In addition to the obvious use as an entertainment device, he suggested this version of volumetric display could see use as a guide for medical procedures.

Of course, we fully expect a proper-sized volumetric display image of a young Carrie Fisher asking Ewan McGregor for help someday.

If you’d like to read more on the future that science is creating for us, visit

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