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Researchers bring Star Wars-like holograms closer to reality


Drawing inspiration from the science fiction classic, a group of international researchers designed a device that could be used next time Princess Leia needs to deliver a holographic message.

The device, developed after more than four years of research led by scientists at MIT, can control light at unprecedented speeds, steer the beam in a specific direction, and manipulate the light's intensity.

It is a programmable, wireless spatial light regulator, or SLM, that can manipulate light at the wavelength scale with "orders of magnitude" faster than existing commercial devices, MIT said.

The device might be as close a shot as it gets toward creating hyper-realistic and dynamic holograms like those depicted in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope 45 years ago.

"Generating a freestanding 3D hologram would require extremely precise and fast control of light beyond the capabilities of existing technologies, which are based on liquid crystals or micromirrors," MIT said.

Researchers used an array of photonic crystal microcavities to achieve this goal. Upon entering the cavity, the light bounces more than 100,000 times and leaks into space.

The process takes just a nanosecond – or one billionth of a second – but it is enough for the device to catch the light and control how it escapes by manipulating the microcavities.

A specially-developed algorithm forms the escaping light into a beam, which researchers demonstrated can be quickly and precisely steered in the direction they want. The device controls the light via a micro-LED display.

"Being able to precisely control a huge bandwidth of light could enable devices that can carry massive amounts of information extremely quickly, such as high-performance communications systems," MIT said.

Researchers said "myriad applications" are possible for the device, including super-fast lidar sensors for self-driving cars that could image a scene a million times faster than existing mechanical systems.

According to MIT, it could also accelerate brain scanners, resulting in higher-resolution, noise-free images of living tissues like flowing blood.

After perfecting the fabrication process, the researchers are working to make larger devices for quantum control or ultrafast sensing and imaging.

The research was published in Nature Photonics journal.


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