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The 3-D displays seen in such sci-fi movies as Star Wars may not be so far, far away.

A new laser system renders full-color 3-D images in thin air, researchers report in the Jan. 25 Nature. This technology could someday make futuristic, free-floating visuals for everything from air traffic control to surgical planning.

With this new technology, “you really can, in principle, achieve what everyone hopes to achieve, which is the image of Princess Leia in that scene in Star Wars,” says Curtis Broadbent, a physicist at the University of Rochester in New York who was not involved in the work.

Whereas holograms are images on flat surfaces that only appear three-dimensional because of how the light bounces off the material, the newly created images actually take up 3-D space (SN: 12/4/10, p. 8). Two-dimensional images of virtual performers can also be made to appear 3-D through stage tricks that involve carefully placed projectors and reflective surfaces. But like holograms, these seemingly 3-D images can only be viewed from certain angles. The new technique creates 3-D images that can be seen from almost any direction.

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Category: Science