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3D or not 3D?

technical & practice - Holography allows architects to take advantage of three-dimensional design without the need for a fly-through

In the first Star Wars film, when Princess Leia was projected from R2-D2's lens asking Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker for help, it was probably many people's first experience of a hologram. OK, so director George Lucas didn't actually create a real hologram on screen, but he stirred our imaginations about a technology that is finally emerging after a long journey since its invention, in Britain, just after World War II.

Recreating Princess Leia in your living room will continue to be a dream for some time to come. However, modern techniques in holography are improving rapidly. Developments are finding their way into many areas, including biology, the visual arts, architecture, product design, data storage, security and prevention of counterfeiting, and advertising and marketing.

You can find holography easily if you know where to look. Because fraudulent reproduction of holographic images is difficult, the technology has been used in credit cards and bank-note security for many years. Last December, Nokia decided to imprint holograms on all its phone batteries in an attempt to stop the burgeoning counterfeiting market.

When you queue to pay for your shopping, the chances are that the check-out till is using a holographic lens system to read the bar-codes on your shopping. Plane travel has benefited from holography for many years. Pilots training in simulators, or flying the real thing, use holographic lenses in cockpit 'heads-up displays'.

They can view their instrument panels while looking out of the window.

As you might expect, the same technology is being developed for cars to accompany the drive-by-wire futuristic systems already in manufacture.

In data storage, holography has the potential to bring about massive changes. Conventional data storage techniques have begun to reach their physical limits in terms of what can be stored and read back using traditional media such as CDs and DVDs.

One US company - InPhase, based in Longmont, Colorado, founded in 2000 - claims it has produced the world's first holographic drive prototype. The capacity of its Tapestry' holographic drive ranges from 200 gigabytes to a massive 1.6 terabytes of data on a single disk. That is the equivalent of more than 1,600 CDs on just one disk.

Compared with today's advances, holography originated in a simpler era. The term 'hologram' comes from 'holos'and 'gramma', meaning 'whole message'. The technique was invented in 1947 by Dennis Gabor, a British/ Hungarian scientist who was perfecting image resolutions of electron microscopes. It didn't really become what we know today until the 1960s, with the invention of lasers. Until then, the light being used to create holograms was not pure enough.

In 1962, scientists Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks of the University of Michigan created the world's first 3D hologram of a toy train and a bird.

Until then, holograms were of 2D objects and shapes. Leith and Upatnieks used a technique called 'off-axis', borrowed from their research into sidereading radar. Unlike modern holograms, however, their images needed the light from a laser to see them. In the same year, Russian scientist Dr Yuri Denisyuk managed to produce the first white-light reflection hologram without needing a laser reader.

From that point onwards, holography moved out of the laboratory and into the commercial world. In 1967, a small image of chess pieces on a chess board was mass-produced for the World Book Encyclopedia Science Yearbook. In the same year, holographers managed to capture an image of a person. A year later, Polaroid Research developed white-light transmission holograms. This meant that, for the first time, the full-colour spectrum was available in a holographic image.

Creating a hologram is fairly simple once you have the right equipment.

A 3D holographic image is created by splitting a laser beam in two - one beam is used as a constant light source and the second to capture distortion when it passes over an object. When the two beams are brought together, hitting a special emulsion film, a holographic image is produced.

Like photography, you can use holograms in two ways: as slides or as prints. Reflection holograms reflect light back at you. Transmission holograms work slightly differently:

the light passes through them from behind, reaching your eyes.

Originally, holograms were reflective, using glass etched with photo-sensitive gels. As more durable techniques developed, so did the potential to mass produce them using cheaper polymers. This meant they could be backed with plastics - developed by Dupont and Polaroid. Today the technology has moved on even further. Using lasers as the light source, holographers can project them onto LCD screens that include holographic images. As a result, digital images can be transmitted using the internet, mobile or wireless technology. However, the ability to transmit moving holographic images remains illusive.

In architecture, interior and product design, holography has great untapped potential. A costly problem is how to demonstrate realistic models and simulations without spending large amounts of money constructing them. Holography is one solution.

Using it, designers can demonstrate 3D concepts, prototypes and detailed CAD drawings in great detail, depth and dimensions.

Unlike a 2D photo or illustration, the main advantage of a hologram is that its 3D image changes when you move around it, revealing depth and detail in full colour. In 2001, the design team at Ford took a bold step and used holography to a new level in its product design process. Its design team produced a prototype of its latest Ford Thunderbird car without needing a real model. Instead, the teams could walk around a virtual 3D holographic model and inspect it in great detail.

That example was created by Texan holography pioneer, Zebra Imaging.

Zebra's innovation was producing holograms straight from computer data and graphics files: taking the image and projecting it onto a large translucent LCD screen using lasers.

As the three-coloured laser beams passed through the giant screen, impacting on a special film, the 3D image appeared.

In interior design, the potential for holograms to transform spaces is just as profound. Installing holographic projection systems in building spaces such as foyers will create new sensations and interactions.

Two US companies are doing similar things in the retail world. Vashon Partners and Provision Interactive recently sold a concept called Holovision to fast-food giant McDonald's.

They have developed a system that projects 3D images up to 60cm in size, using kiosks for in-store point-of-sale marketing. Although the concept is in its infancy, McDonald's is trialling the kiosks in 700 burger bars in Australia and New Zealand. Each kiosk will sell prepaid wireless plans, ringtones and streaming video. In crowded shop interiors, the technology is certain to provide a 'wow' factor.

Provision is doing similar things with food chain TGI Friday, with trials in stores in Phoenix, Arizona. Here Provision is using the technology to project premium drinks brands on screens above the counters. In both examples the product literally comes out of the screen, appearing to float in front of the customer.

With many innovative ideas, the benefits are not always immediate and it takes a lot of time and effort to make them viable. Holography is the same.

From its early years in the 1940s until today, no one could have imagined the extent of its influence. Let's hope the magic of holography continues - so long as industry and science, as well as product design and architecture - keep using their imagination.

Martyn Perks is an IT design consultant, writer and broadcaster. Contact:

mail@martynperks. com

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