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article imageOp-Ed: The holodeck has arrived — Nanoscale 3D light manipulation

By Paul Wallis     Oct 6, 2019 in Technology
Seattle - Is this the material that can create the holodeck? Could be. A new class of surprisingly versatile precision nanomaterials can deliver manageable active 3D light, and you can almost hear the tech guys drooling.
For something that looks like very like the rough side of a bit of Masonite, the new nano material has created a buzz like few others in recent years in a very demanding field. For a material which doesn’t even have a name yet, it’s making an impact already. The interest is coming from across the visual spectrum of media.
The technical side of this discovery is so terminology-heavy it’s not easy to read. The basics, however, are pretty straightforward. According to researchers from the University of Washington and Institute for Molecular & Engineering Sciences , this is a new class of metamaterial, with no real analog equivalents. It uses an “inverse” design to deliver 8 focused points of light in a helical pattern. It also uses a principle called Mie scattering, which is the brilliant, lustrous effect you see in stained glass, to manage colour.
(Actually, that’s sounding pretty good already. Colour definition was one of the curses of early photography, and the ability to get good strong colours is a very important part of this technology on multiple functional levels.)
What’s so important about this? Just about everything
3D light is the current aspirational Holy Grail of optical science. Holograms proved that light could be shaped into static images or GIF-like things. People have been banging away on the theory of 3D light ever since. This material takes the whole idea a lot further, There’s now a real possibility that active 3D imagery, exactly like any other type of visual media, is within reach.
Another critical issue here is that using nanoscale materials means much greater efficiency and less energy usage to deliver high quality images. Computational power, which has exploded since the early days of holograms by billions of times more power, can manage these images very efficiently. Any image can now be handled at the equation level, using algorithms and also effectively tapping into conventional image management.
This isn’t just about creating 3D visual media. You will have occasionally seen articles all over the internet on “the first time something has been seen”, for example. This is where 3D light is so very important, and manipulation of images is critical.
Imaging technologies are used for everything from medicine to atomic science, biology, and practically all types of research. Electron microscopy is likely to be the first beneficiary of this scalable imagery, capturing images and creating working 3D models.
When used to translate data into images, 3D light offers some real new horizons for just about all the currently hard to visualise information. Images can be magnified, put through multiple processes like exposure to UV, infrared, etc., too, on the same basis. If you have an image, you can process it in any number of ways, very simply, with good resolution.
Consumer level tech? Not yet, but it’s on its way
Even allowing for the enthusiasm with which so much new imaging tech is compulsively marketed, getting 3D imagery into a working form at consumer level will take a while. 3D imaging software will need to upgrade itself pretty severely. Eventually, you’ll have active 3D images you can photoshop, but the image management is currently pretty complex, and the baseline tech for 3D imagery will have to be translated onto multiple platforms and operating systems. Standardization of basic operational parameters, etc. ASAP would be a good idea to improve times getting to market.
Fortunately, most of the predictable consumer level tech is likely to require mainly number crunching. You could easily have mobile devices able to produce simple active 3D images with a bit of screen projection, for example. Create a 3D image or sequence of images and have it hovering over your iPhone, or something, for example. Not too difficult, but the platforms will have to be reconfigured to do it.
You could have family pics, memes, whatever. When translated into platform tech, there’s almost no limit. Basic 3D imaging is now pretty good for what it is, so a lot of 3D ideas which are now 2D will have easy access to the new 3D options.
3D Gaming? Of course, 3D gaming.
The new tech is being touted as super-VR, which is a rather simplistic translation of the technology, but true enough. Modern gaming is a mix of cinematography and image management, using rules for interactions. It’s easy, in theory. In 3D, however, you are literally adding another dimension.
That means 3D gaming software will have to evolve, rapidly. It’s no trivial exercise, and turning it into the sort of instant access/do-everything software required will take some doing.
It’s unlikely that game developers and gamers could possibly resist the 3D options, so you can expect to see at least a few early efforts when this new material is developed to the point of being able to manage the gigantic data loads which will be initially required. (Imagine Warcraft, The Witcher, Post Scriptum, and maybe even Civilization as 3D….!!! Build a city and go for a walk around, etc. )
Data management will get a lot more efficient, particularly in gaming, given the excuse of 3D to finally go nuts in game development and stay nuts. Gaming may also repay the favour to the 3D imaging technology by finding good working options for real time, large scale, image control.
The future of 3D is looking good – Let’s not screw it up
These are the very earliest days for this tech, and development is the next phase. The potential consumer market is everyone, off the scale for commercial potentials across the board. It’s not ready for the consumer market, and that will take a while. Given the usual “neurotic” process of funding research, let’s hope this new discovery doesn’t have to go busking for future development. It’s far too important to be allowed to drag on over decades of finding money for research.
I’m hoping the researchers will produce a good practical model to show what the new material can do. Selling the benefits of an obviously good idea isn’t all that hard; making it comprehensible, however, could be an issue.
The basic idea is pretty simple; the scope of the idea, however, is vast. They’ll need to show how many applications this technology has. The biotech and medical guys will love it. So will chemistry researchers and, appropriately enough, materials science researchers.
As for 3D TV, etc., that is now a working possibility, but with a lot of back end work required. Even something as simple as “where do you put a 3D TV?” will need to be planned out and made workable.
So- Hang on for a wild ride into 3D imaging. It’ll be fantastic, it’ll be fun, it’ll be profitable, and it really does have the potential to reboot the whole visual arts and tech spectrum. So let’s not screw it up, eh?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about University of Washington, 3D imaging, 3D gaming, 3D image manipulation, 3D real time imaging
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