3D animated lasers replicate iconic Star Trek and Star Wars scenes better than holograms

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Modern holograms are cool lightshows, but their flat, 2D nature is far from the holodeck dream. While hologram research continues, scientists at Brigham Young University have been testing an alternate technology: 3D animated laser shows.

Reported by Ars, the new technology creates active shows that exist tangibly. Instead of 2D approximations, these tiny light shows are fully 3D and can be viewed from any angle. In their prototype stage, they’re far from perfect, but they’re pretty neat.

How do the 3D animated lasers work?

The effects are brought to life through “photopheresis”. Using a combination of spherical lenses and robotic mirrors, microscopic particles are trapped inside small laser beams and stretched into 3D images. By exploiting the “shutter speed” of human eyes, the mirage is essentially a high-tech flipbook animation.

This effect allows the team to create intricate moving pictures. As the lasers 3D print images at incredibly high speeds, they can be made to look like anything. For example, one of the most impressive scenes is a low-res recreation of the Princess Leia hologram from A New Hope.

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BYU's Leia projection vs A New Hope

“Here at BYU, in the Holography group, we are working to create the displays of science fiction,” said Professor Dan Smalley. “Displays like the Holodeck from Star Trek or the Princess Leia projection from Star Wars. Most displays require you to look at a screen, but our technology creates images that are floating out in space. And they’re physical!”

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The Star Trek Space Battle

At the moment, the technology can only be used for small displays. However, that hasn’t stopped the team at BYU from having fun with the tech. For example, making use of the small area, the team created a holographic battle between two Star Trek ships.

Using miniscule models of the USS Enterprise and a Klingon Bird of Prey, the animated optical trap displayed a miniature fight. Real lasers shoot from ship to ship ― red from the Enterprise and green from the Klingons. It’s crude and rudimentary, but it’s adorably fun to watch tiny ships have “real battles”. The technology was also used to create a minuscule Star Wars lightsaber battle.

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“What you’re seeing in this scene is real. There’s nothing computer generated about it. These are real lasers moving around, in space, between two ships!” Smalley said.

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