Holograms Could Put 3D on Your Phone Without the Dorky Glasses

Making virtual reality even better

  • Scientists have created new light sensors inside a camera that produce 3D images in a development that could lead to holograms in your phone.
  • Holograms allow you to see a life-like 3D image without the necessity of wearing additional 3D glasses. 
  •  Proto is building the infrastructure for hologram phone calls and meetings.
A couple having a conversation, one person in holographic form.

Matt Bird / Getty Images

Your smartphone could soon feature the ability to show holograms.

Researchers in South Korea claim in a recent paper that they’ve created new light sensors inside a camera that create 3D images. The technique could lead to the long-sought goal of producing holograms without bulky equipment. 

Holograms "could offer glasses-free 3D capabilities," for smartphones, Gordon Wetzstein, a professor at Stanford University who studies holograms and was not part of the study, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Holograms Go Mobile

Scientists at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology and collaborators say they have developed a photodiode that detects the polarization of light in the near-infrared region without additional polarization filters. The technology can create a miniaturized holographic image sensor for 3D digital holograms. 

Photodiodes turn light into electrical signals and are responsible for the pixels of image sensors in digital and smartphone cameras. Using the polarization of light with an image sensor can turn an ordinary camera into one capable of storing 3D holograms. But previous polarization-sensing cameras were too bulky to be put into portable electronic devices. 

The researchers developed a new type of photodiode by stacking special semiconductors. 

"Research on the downsizing and integration of individual elements is required to ultimately miniaturize holographic systems," Do Kyung Hwang, one of the paper’s authors, said in a news release. "The results of our research will lay the foundation for the future development of miniaturized holographic camera sensor modules."

Holographic displays offer unique capabilities, Wetzstein said. For example, they allow you to see a life-like 3D image without the necessity of wearing additional 3D glasses. 

"In the context of VR/AR displays, they also offer unique benefits in being very light efficient and offering more natural 3D images to the user, which improve the perceptual realism and visual comfort of these immersive experiences," he added.

"There’s no true hologram outside of a lab that is ready, or cost-effective enough, for consumers."

Calling Your Friends Via Hologram

Holograms have spent decades appearing in science fiction without turning into real devices you can buy. "There are really no solutions available today," Timothy Wilkinson, a professor of Photonic Engineering at the University of Cambridge who studies holograms, told Lifewire via email. "Holographic displays have been studied for decades, but the technology hasn't been ready for  commercial products."

David Nussbaum, the CEO of Proto, which is working on holographic technology, said gadgets using the word “hologram” these days aren’t really holograms at all. 

"There’s no true hologram outside of a lab that is ready, or cost-effective enough, for consumers," Nussbaum added. "We’re many years away from that technology becoming practical for everyday use."

A few small companies are commercializing holographic displays, such as VividQ which makes components for business use. Wilkinson said the holographic devices are produced in low volume and therefore expensive. 

An athlete on a forest path interacting with a hologram personal trainer.

Matt Bird / Getty Images

"The main problem in the market at the moment is that most LCD displays are built for refractive imaging and do not suit diffraction," Wilkinson added. "The technology is there, but the large LCD manufacturers need to be convinced of the market in order for them to invest in the costs of producing low-cost liquid crystal devices suitable for holography."

But holograms may finally be having their moment. Proto is building the infrastructure for hologram phone calls and meetings. "People are using them every day in the easiest to operate, 4K quality, near-zero latency, the most cost-effective solution now—so the networks and software and content streams, and even the familiarity for the public, will all be in place," Nussbaum said. "We’d like to be the ones making the true holograms to run on the systems we’re creating."

If they ever become mainstream, holographic displays could have a wide range of uses. When a doctor wants to explain a joint injury to a patient—or an engineer seeks to explain how a complex part should be manufactured—it’s helpful to have holography to give presence to the objects, Nussbaum said. 

"That presence helps the brain understand things quicker than a flat display," Nussbaum added. "Being able to do this without headgear or isolating goggles lets a team collaborate more effectively, building even more understanding. And being able to beam this around the world can help in telehealth and so many other industries."

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