Volumetric Displays: Will Voxels Immersive Display Technology Ever Become The New pixels?

Augmented-Reality- volumetric display immersive technologies

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There’s a whole new type of virtual display that we don’t really see discussed that much.

A volumetric display has three physical dimensions, so you can view projected images from multiple angles as if they were real-life objects. It may sound like something from a science fiction film, but it excites us to think about how we can use them to enrich an immersive experience – from displaying data to mesmerising models.

Wait, aren’t they just holograms?

Not quite. Volumetric displays may look and sound similar to holograms, but they’re actually much more advanced. Holograms may look 3D at times, but technically they aren’t: the image is actually projected onto a 2D surface.

There’s nothing 2D about a volumetric display, however. When it displays an object, it processes information about the area said object takes up in all three spaces, and then scatters light across a wider space accordingly.

In other words, if a holographic display paints pictures, a volumetric display crafts sculptures.

Display Types

Swept volume displays

Swept volume displays automatically divide a 3D image into multiple slices. The display then projects the slices onto a rapidly-rotating screen in succession, one at a time, giving us the illusion of a static three-dimensional object.  

This system works by taking advantage of our persistence of vision.  Even when an image physically leaves our sight, it lingers for a flash in our mind’s eye. Our eyes can only process around 10-12 frames per second individually, while films typically have 24 or 25 frames.  You could say a swept volume display works just like a flipbook animation – what our eyes and mind interpret as a single moving scene is actually a sequence of multiple drawings (a.k.a. frames) played at a rapid rate.

See the video below for an example of an advanced swept volume display in action, developed by Voxon Photonics.

Static volume displays

Unlike swept volume displays, static volume displays don’t have any moving surfaces. Just like how traditional displays are made up of pixels, static volume displays are composed of multiple tiny elements of light known as voxels. The voxels can have one of two states: they are either off (in which they’re unlit and transparent) or on (lit up and opaque/translucent).

The image below illustrates a hypothetical static volume display from 2003, developed by a group of students and teachers from a high school in Germany.

  Sounds cool, but why don’t we hear of these more?

As exciting as volumetric displays sound, especially in terms of the possibilities they could unlock, the future of this technology is up in the air. It simply isn’t feasible for mainstream use at the moment, for multiple reasons:

  1. They’re expensive

Voxels and slices of 3D images require much more computing power to store and process than regular pixels and visual information. Swept volume displays may require very high refresh rates to maintain persistence of vision – combine that with the complexity of the voxels and the display could end up requiring a bandwidth of several gigabytes per second to run!

This obviously means that wide-scale usage of proper volumetric displays would be extremely costly: to produce, purchase, and to use!!

  2. They’re inefficient

The sheer amount of power required to make and use them wouldn’t just burn a hole in your wallet, but perhaps also the ozone layer!  With climate change concerns growing, our society becomes more and more conscious of our carbon footprint by the day. The environmental resources required to generate electricity to power them would probably be more than they’re worth, so we’d have to work hard to develop a greener, less power-hungry solution.

  3. The graphics quality is currently limited

Even in a scenario where financial and environmental concerns  weren’t an issue, volumetric displays still pose challenges of their own within the visual aspect of them.

With a lot of research yet to be done and obstacles to be cleared, volumetric displays have a long way to go and we probably won’t see them emerge on the market anytime soon.

But who knows? Maybe in a few years’ time, we could all be using monitors that display our images in true 3D.

  Bibliography

Knut Langhans, Christian Guill, Elisabeth Rieper, Klaas Oltmann, & Detlef Bahr (2003). SOLID FELIX: a static volume 3D-laser display. In: [Online]. 30 May 2003. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1117/12.474155Smalley, D., Poon, T.-C., Gao, H., Kvavle, J. & Qaderi, K. (2018). Volumetric Displays: Turning 3-D Inside-Out. Optics and Photonics News. 29 (6). p.p. 26.

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