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Scientists make large-scale holographic displays an affordable reality

A new method of creating holographic video displays is making the technology not only cheaper, but possible to produce on a large scale, making holographic advertising such as Back to the Future II’s attacking poster for Jaws 19 a potential reality.

Developed by scientists at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the technology uses surface acoustic waves in specific patterns to control the angle and colour composition of the emitted light, creating the hologram’s shape and look.

“We can use this technology to make simple and inexpensive color waveguide displays — including inexpensive holographic video displays,” explained Daniel E Smalley, assistant professor of electrical engineering at BYU.

“This can drop the cost of a holographic video display from tens of thousands of dollars to less than a thousand.”


One of the many waveguide devices that form BYU’s holographic display.

At the core of the technology is a surface of lithium niobate (LiNbO3), a crystal with excellent optical properties.

Below its surface, the scientists created tiny channels known as waveguides, which confine the light. They then added a metal electrode onto each waveguide that produces the surface acoustic waves that project and control the light as a hologram.

In this way, each waveguide effectively functions as a pixel, together creating the overall image.

One of the key benefits of this technology is the colour possibilities, as it creates a new type of colour display.

“For a wavelength display, we don’t need to rely on color filter wheels or dedicated red and blue pixels,” explained Smalley.

Instead, any colour is possible simply by altering the frequency sent to the waveguide.

“We can colour the output of our display by ‘colouring’ the frequencies of the drive signal,” said Smalley.

“As a bonus, this interaction also rotates the polarization of the signal light so that we can use a polarizer to eliminate any noise in the system.”


BYU’s holographic video monitor.

While the technology has proved to be successful, there is still some way to go before we’ll be attacked by holographic creatures promoting the latest blockbusters.

The scientists’ next step, which they are currently working on, is to make the technology work on displays the size of rooms.

Once successful, however, their technology is likely to be welcomed by advertising companies looking for the next high-impact way to reach consumers. And when that happens, it will only be a matter of time before holograms become a common sight in our towns and cities.

Featured image screenshot from Back to the Future II. Inline images courtesy of D Smalley/BYU.