Saturday, December 03, 2005

3D Mid-Air Plasma Display

Remember the animated, holographic chess set in the first Star Wars?

Yesterday Keio had its annual Techno-Mall, a mini-exhibition where about sixty professors' labs set up booths and demonstrations to show off their research for the public, some alumni, the Keio brass, and funding bigwigs.

I was there with my physics professor Kohei Itoh's group, discussing our research on the silicon NMR quantum computer. My CS prof, Fumio Teraoka, had a nice demo of fast handovers in mobile IPv6. There was heavy emphasis on sustainable, environmentally friendly engineering, including a lecture by Kengo Kuma, a famous architect who is a visiting professor at Keio. A lot of research is also taking place on assistive technologies for the elderly and disabled. The bicycle that balances itself while you pedal, and the wheelchair that can help you lift your arm both look promising. Material science and computer science in various forms also seem to be strengths of Keio.

But the most startling thing I saw, by far, was a videotape. Prof.
Taro Uchiyama and his group have developed a display that can create glowing, animated images in mid-air, floating above the device itself. So far, they can do things like a fluttering butterfly, or three characters of text, totaling a hundred pixels or so. In a year, they hope to be animating fully 3D characters of the quality of, say, a human being built out of Legos.

What's the trick? They focus a laser down to a point small enough to create, for a moment, a glowing plasma in mid-air! They can scan the focus point in three dimensions, not really fast enough yet, but tolerable. In fact, it's a bit reminiscent of laserium light shows in its current incarnation, though it's white light only.

The images are currently table-top size, but Prof. Uchiyama thinks they can scale this up a long ways, and one of their posters shows a graphic of it being used by a lighthouse at the beach, skywriting tsunami warnings. How much power does this take? I asked, and got a non-answer, but that's presumably the reason they were demoing a videotape instead of the device. Students are in the demo, wearing very heavy safety goggles.

This is mind-bending stuff; I wonder how far they'll really be able to take it. I hope they succeed, both technically and commercially.

Unfortunately, I can't find anything about this on the web. Prof. Uchiyama says he's looking for someone to commercialize it, either here or in the U.S.


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