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Issue Date: Vol. 53, No. 7, July 2013, Posted On: 7/3/2013

Cutting-Edge Technology Holds Promise For Cheap, High-Quality Holographic Displays

Hank Schlesinger
TAGS: video game technology, arcade video game, holographic video displays, Massachusetts Institute of Technolog, MIT Media Lab, Nature, Anisotropic leaky-mode modulator for holographic video displays, Daniel Smalley, Michael Bove, holographic projectors

CAMBRIDGE, MA -- High-quality holographic video displays, including those for videogames, may be closer than you think. A student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's renowned Media Lab has developed a new approach to a holographic display that could produce full-color holograms with quality that is roughly the same as a standard-definition television. What's more, the display could be much cheaper to produce than current experimental monochromatic displays. The technology could also increase resolution on conventional 2D displays.

The breakthrough technology was announced on June 2 in the scientific journal Nature ("Anisotropic leaky-mode modulator for holographic video displays"). The article, which described the technology, has grabbed the attention of tech gurus and manufacturers around the world.

Using the new technique, MIT Media Lab graduate student Daniel Smalley, first author of the paper, is building a holographic video display prototype that will update video images 30 times a second, fast enough to produce the illusion of motion. The heart of the display is an optical chip, resembling a microscope slide that Smalley built using only MIT facilities for about $10.

"Everything else in there costs more than the chip," says Smalley's thesis advisor, Michael Bove, a principal Media Lab research scientist in the Object-Based Media Group. "The power supplies in there cost more than the chip. The plastic costs more than the chip."

The chip uses a crystal of lithium niobate with a substrate of microscopic channels known as waveguides that precisely guide light traveling through them. This technique, experts noted, is radically different than the traditional holographic projectors first built in the Media Lab by Stephen Benton, a professor who died in 2003.

"What's most exciting about [the new chip] is that it's a waveguide-based platform, which is a major departure from every other type of spatial light modulator used for holographic video right now," Smalley said. "One of the big advantages here is that you get to use all the tools and techniques of integrated optics. Any problem we're going to meet now in holographic video displays, we can feel confidence that there's a suite of tools to attack it, relatively simply."

How long until the new technology is integrated into consumer products is up for debate. However, most indications suggest it's not a question of "if" -- but of "when."

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