From Star Wars to Red Dwarf, moving holograms have long been a staple of science fiction.
Now scientists have invented a gadget that allows viewers to watch three-dimensional holographic videos without the need for special glasses.
The breakthrough could revolutionise television, movies and computer games – and see the introduction of 3D advertising billboards on street corners.
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A refreshable holographic image of an F-4 Phantom Jet created on a photorefractive polymer that can be viewed without 3D glasses
It could even be used to create three-dimensional maps and allow surgeons to perform operations hundreds of miles from patients.
The invention, called holographic telepresence, is the brainchild of researchers at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences.
Dr Nasser Peyghambarian who led the research, said: ‘This advance brings us a step closer to the ultimate goal of realistic holographic telepresence with high resolution, full colour, human-sized, 3D images that can be sent at video refresh rates from one part of the world to another.
‘Holographic telepresence means we can record a three-dimensional image in one location and show it in another location, in real time, anywhere in the world.’
The scene from the first Star Wars film in which a message from Princess Leia is beamed as a hologram (see below) for Obi-Wan Kenobi
Princess Leia delivers her call for help
The prototype uses a 10inch screen made from a new type of ‘photorefractive’ material that can refresh a hologram every two seconds.
The image is recorded using an array of normal cameras, each of which views the object from a different pointof view.
The information is then encoded onto a fast-pulsed laser beam which interferes with another beam of light, creating an ‘interference pattern’ which is written into the photorefractive material – creating the three dimensional image.
The hologram fades away naturally after acouple of seconds or minutes, or it can be erased by recording a new 3Dimage and storing it on the screen.
The prototype refreshes its image every two seconds so movement is jerky and slow.
The researchers are working on a 17-inch screen – closer in size to a normal television and say the refresh rate will speed up.
Dr Peyghambarian added: ‘Let’s say I want to give a presentation in new York. All I need is an array of cameras here in my Tucson office and a fast Internet connection.
‘At the other end, in new York, there would be the 3D display using our laser system. Everything is fully automated and controlled by computer.
‘As the image signals are transmitted, the lasers inscribe them into the screen and render them into a three-dimensional projection of me speaking.’
The research is published today in the science journal Nature.
Professor Nasser Peyghambarian led the research at the College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona
He says the invention could revolutionise home entertainment and be used in ‘telemedicine’.
‘Surgeons at different locations around the world can observe in 3D, in real time, and participate in the surgical procedure,’ he said.
The system currently works in just one colour. However, the scientists have previously developed colour holographic displays that refresh at a faster rate.
The last couple of years has seen a revival in 3D movies and television. However, in order to get the 3D effect, viewers have to wear special glasses.
The most famous example of ‘telepresence’ in movies appears in the original Star Wars when the droid R2D2 projects a holographic image of Princess Leia delivering a call for help.
The film back to the Future II also depicts advanced telepresence technology, as Michael J. Fox is startled by the 3D image of a shark pouncing on him from an advertising poster.
Earlier this year, the electronics company Toshiba unveiled a 3D TV that works without glasses. However, the viewer has to sit close to the screen for the effect to work.