Scientists develop incredible holograms you can touch

2015 has seen science-fiction becoming reality. We’ve had more stories about drones than ever before, seen two working hoverboard concepts, and now we’ve finally moved one-step closer to tangible holograms.

A team of researchers from universities across Japan have developed a safe-to-touch form of hologram technology using femtosecond lasers. Dubbed “Fairy Lights” by its inventors, the technology fires lasers into the air, pulsing at one millionth of one billionth of a second to turn a specific point into plasma.

The research team managed to turn these holograms into interactive displays after seeing that touching them emitted a bright light. “It was found that the contact between plasma and a finger causes a brighter light,” the team’s research paper states. “This effect can be used as a cue of the contact. One possible control is touch interaction in which floating images change when touched by a user.”

What’s more, this interaction is actually tangible, with feedback to your finger when you touch the suspended plasma particles. “Shock waves are generated by plasma when a user touches the plasma voxels. The user feels an impulse on the finger as if the light has physical substance.” Sadly, the reason for why this happens is “beyond the scope” of the team’s research and their paper.

This isn’t the first hologram technology to be developed. Previous attempts have worked using the same principle of creating voxels (three-dimensional pixels) at the focal point of an ionising laser. The difference here is that the new technology is safe. In the past, a laser pulsing at a nanosecond resulted in images containing a significant amount of energy; touch it or walk through it, and you risked being burnt.

Femtosecond lasers, however, produce less energy when creating each voxel, with the technology capable of rendering 200,000 voxels per second. Despite this technological breakthrough, though, images are tiny at 8mm3.

If the technology could scale up, which Spectrum IEEE claims is possible, then we could see hologram technology stuffed into our tech of the future. While the world is currently fascinated by an augmented-reality future led by Microsoft’s HoloLens, a future of Star Wars-like holograms or tangible Minority Report-style displays is far more exciting.

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