Wednesday, July 1, 2015

One Step Closer to Holodecks

A persistent idea in SciFi movies is holograms as either 3D videos that can be projected into thin air or tangible objects you can touch and interact with.  It's a disappointment for almost everyone when they learn that the hologram can't be seen unless it's projected onto something like smoke or wispy cloth.  Similarly, the laser beams in movies that can be seen from any angle as colored streaks across the screen are only visible in that kind of smoke or fog. 

Released to the world on June 22, we get news of a breakthrough that gives us a little bit of both.
Released by The Digital Nature Group at Japan’s University of Tsukuba, this video shows a technique they've developed that not only projects an image in thin air, you can interact with it and touch it.  Furthermore, their system can sense your touch and change in response.  While it's very, very far from a solid image you could touch like they used to portray in Star Trek Holodeck scenes, something like the displays that Tom Cruise's character manipulates in Minority Report just got a step closer.  Suddenly they seem like something that could be 10 years away.  The displays in this video are quite small, so they'll need to be made bigger, but that doesn't seem hard just looking at their approach.

So what's different in this breakthrough? They are using very short laser pulses, measured in femtoseconds (fs).  In some experiments the pulses were 269 fs, in others 30-100fs.  (1 fs is 10^-15 second)  The laser pulses essentially ignite the air turning it into plasma and the plasma is illuminated by the laser.  The plasma takes the place of the smoke, water vapor or other media currently used.  Plasma is hot but the combination of tiny amounts of energy, less than 50 micro joules, and those short pulses results in a plasma you can touch without being burned. 

The future is looking like a neat place.

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