'Star Wars' Holograms: Almost a Reality?

How would you like to beam yourself around the planet, Princess Leia-style?

Researchers at the University of Arizona have developed technology that can transmit 3-D images in near real-time and say it may not be too long before holographic videoconferencing becomes a reality.

Just like Princess Leia made her "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" plea as a hologram in the original "Star Wars," they say we might be able to virtually attend conferences, participate in surgery, manufacture products and more.

But the researchers say they are aiming to do Star Wars even one better -- instead of displaying miniaturized, monochromatic versions of the projected objects, they want to display images that are human-size, full-color and high-resolution.

The cover story of Friday's issue of the journal Nature features the breakthrough technology, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

"What we have come up with is new technology to do 3-D telepresence, which means we can take objects from one location and show them in another location in 3-D in near real-time," Nasser Peyghambarian, co-author of the Nature paper and professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Arizona, said in a webcast about the research. "The heart of the system is based on holography and the images we send are holograms."

Holography First Developed About 50 years Ago

Holography, which was developed about 50 years ago, uses lasers to create an image from light scattered by an object. The way the images are constructed gives viewers the impression that the image is multi-dimensional.

Holograms are already used on driver's licenses, consumer packaging, kids' stickers and other products. But Peyghambarian said he and his team are using cutting edge materials and nanotechnology to write the 3-D images and then transmit them at a very high speed.

Holographic Video Could Be Used for Medicine, Manufacturing, Advertising

About two years ago, Peyghambarian said their system could display a new image only once every four or five minutes. This new system can refresh images 100 times faster at a speed of one image every two seconds.

To use the technology for video, they'd have to increase the speed to 30 frames per second, he said, but added that even at a slower speed the system could still be used for medicine, manufacturing, advertising and other fields.

The difference between holographic video and 3-D video has to do with the number of perspectives the technology provides, he said. For example, if you watch a 3-D movie like Avatar, you can only perceive two perspectives of the objects displayed on the screen -- one for each eye.

But in Peyghambarian's experiment, they were able to capture 16 different perspectives of the objects they recorded.

So instead of just seeing the front of a person projected in one- or two-dimensional images, a viewer could get a 360-degree view.

"Holography is the closest way of looking at things as humans do," he said. (And, without the clunky glasses.)

Researcher: Previous Examples of Holograms Were Not Truly Holographic

The technology could allow a surgeon in London participate in a complicated procedure underway in New York or it could allow an executive in Paris to attend a conference in San Francisco -- all without the extra resources and expense needed to travel the distance.

But, though the technology is on its way, Peyghambarian said we'll still have to wait a few years. Perfecting the materials and lasers in the lab could take about two or three years, and then scaling it and transferring it to commerce could take another two or three years

"I don't think you can see this in your rooms, in your houses, in less than seven to 10 years," he said.

Technology giant CISCO has demonstrated its ability to provide holographic telepresence, and CNN debuted its "holographic" correspondents during 2008 election coverage.

But Peyghambarian said those are not examples of true 3-D holographic video.

"People sitting in the studio could not see the back of the object or different aspects or perspectives of the object, while this technology certainly allows that," he said. "CNN called it holography but it wasn't really. It was some sort of digital image fusion technology that they used."