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This Holograph Can Be Touched and Manipulated

Tiny interactive displays use lasers to create touchable plasma

Screenshot from "Fairy Lights in Femtoseconds: Tangible Holographic Plasma (SIGGRAPH)" (Yoichi Ochiai via Youtube.com)
smithsonian.com

Science fiction is where humankind dreams, pouring our hopes for and fears of the future. Occasionally, this also means predicting the future. Now, Japanese researchers are delving into the fantastical with a 3D interactive hologram, a longtime staple of science fiction, with a touchable system they call "Fairy Lights."

The system fires high-frequency laser pulses to produce a light display in midair. These laser pulses create plasma by ripping electrons from molecules in the air, which then glows similar to lightning, but without the shock. The touch of a finger disrupts that display and allows users to manipulate the hologram, Katrina Pascual reports for Tech Times.

In the researchers’ demonstration video, a sparkling, hovering heart breaks in two and the outline of a fairy dances in air. 

Mirrors and lenses help direct and focus the high-intensity lasers, which can produce images with a resolution of up to 200,000 dots per second. 

The laser even provides tactile feedback—to some it feels like sandpaper, to others like a static shock, reports Dave Gershgorn for Popular Science. The team had to adjust the laser carefully to avoid burning human skin, which was a problem with older versions of the system, writes Gershgorn.

There are also other interactive holograms currently under development, like RealView—a system designed to project images of organs to assist in diagnostics and medical procedures. But these systems lack tactile features of "Fairy Lights." 

"[I]f we can project an image in a three dimensional form, and if you can touch it, then you can make something where you'll think that there actually is something there," says one of the leading researchers on the project, Yoichi Ochiai of Tskukuba University, reports Reuters. The team published a description of the system online at arXiv.org

Although the images created so far are endearingly minute, the team is now working to scale-up the system. 

In the future, touchable holograms could enhance communications, or add new excitement to entertainment. This technology could even help in fields where precise interactions between materials is key, like construction or architecture.

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