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Hologram seminar probes past and future of 3-D imaging

The grayish holograms of ocean plankton, produced by engineers in MIT's 3D Optical Systems Group and showcased during a March 6-7 holography seminar at the MIT Museum, didn't look much like the dazzling holograms that fired the popular imagination back in the 1970s. Yet these images represent some of the new developments in the field of holography, which may have implications for numerous fields of research.

"Holography has an amazingly high potential, with minimum applications so far," said MIT Museum Manager Seth Riskin, organizer of "Photons, Neurons and Bits: Holography for the 21st Century," which brought together scientists, artists and historians. "Therefore, it has been seen as isolated, stagnant and not living up to its early billing."

Sean Johnston, associate professor in the history of science and technology at the University of Glasgow, recounted holography's checkered 60-year history and emphasized how the technology was originally oversold as the "new photography." Hologram pioneers like electrical engineering professor Emmett Leith of the University of Michigan attempted to interest investors in holography as a new photography and/or engineering process. Despite initial interest by the military in secretly developing holographic imaging, the impetus for holographic development died in the 1970s. Even Dennis Gabor, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his holography innovations, finally dismissed holography as a "white elephant" after no compelling applications were developed, Johnston said.

Commercial applications -- in creative packaging and security, such as the holograms on lottery tickets and paper currency -- were more successful. But the once-touted holographic movie never emerged. V. Michael Bove Jr., director of MIT's Consumer Electronics Laboratory, regaled the audience with stories of garish 3-D movies (such as the trashy but highly successful 1969 film, "The Stewardesses") that gave all 3-D entertainment an aura of tawdriness and hype.

Art rushed in where science stumbled, Johnston said. Artists, intrigued with the possibilities of holograms, "took over and reshaped the subject." Artists perceived holograms in fundamentally different ways than engineers and created bodies of work in holographic art, he said. Today the MIT Museum has the world's largest collection of historical holograms, and much of the seminar was devoted to discussing how best to preserve and display its holdings.

Some members of the MIT community, including President Emeritus Charles M. Vest, never lost their fascination with holography.

"Holography's importance is attested to by its continuing ability to inspire and excite those who encounter it for the first time," Vest said in the seminar's keynote address. "Few if any other scientific concepts or technologies of the second half of the 20th century are so readily accessible in their basic form to those with little formal scientific or engineering training."

Holography's potential is now being realized in labs such as the 3D Optical Systems Group. Using videos and remote cameras, George Barbastathis, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and graduate students Jose Dominguez-Caballero and Nick Loomis demonstrated the use of computer-generated holography as a form of data acquisition. The lab is designing a holography system that can simultaneously produce images of multiple layers within an object under scrutiny. Dominguez-Caballero compared it to tearing apart a building to view the floors side by side. "It's like having a camera that is always in focus across a very large volume," Loomis said. Such "volume holographic imagery" has implications for medical imaging of human tissue, they said.

The lab has built an underwater ocean holography camera that has captured specialized images of plankton, recording their position and density, which can provide data on species distribution in the ocean. "From a single hologram, we get a lot of information," Dominguez-Caballero said. The lab is working on holographic applications that measure particles in the flow of liquid in fuel injection systems or in the airflow around cars, which could help improve transportation designs.

3-D television has recently garnered a huge amount of attention, particularly as movies like "The Stewardesses" have faded from memory, said the Consumer Electronics Laboratory's Bove. He predicted that commercial holographic television would be a reality within five years.

Holography "opens up a world of research and a world of expression," Riskin said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 11, 2009 (download PDF).

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