Stephen Benton, holography pioneer, dies

Stephen A. Benton, cofounder of the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) Media Lab (Cambridge, MA), inventor of the rainbow hologram, and a leader in the optics and imaging communities, has died at age 61.

Jan 1st, 2004

Stephen A. Benton, cofounder of the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) Media Lab (Cambridge, MA), inventor of the rainbow hologram, and a leader in the optics and imaging communities, has died at age 61. He died on Nov. 9, 2003, just two days before the Lab held Benton Vision, a symposium celebrating his life and contributions to science and engineering. The event brought together 260 of his friends and family, as well as current and former colleagues and students (with another 115 watching in cyberspace); it had been hoped that he, too, would attend. Additional events commemorating his life will be held at SPIE's Electronic Imaging and Photonics West (San Jose, CA) this month.


Stephen Benton in 1986 demonstrates a variation of the holographic stereogram.
Click here to enlarge image

Born in San Francisco in 1941, Benton was raised in California before moving to Massachusetts to study at MIT and Harvard. Before getting his Ph.D. degree in 1968, he had already worked in Edwin Land's vision research laboratory at Polaroid and with stroboscopy pioneer Harold "Doc" Edgerton. He founded the Spatial Imaging Group at MIT in 1982, bringing it into the Media Laboratory when it opened two years later, and made Edgerton the subject of one of his famous holographic stereograms. Benton's group took these composite holograms to a new level by using computer-graphics techniques and sophisticated optical modeling to remove distortions—an approach that dramatically improved their quality and increased public acceptance.

The Benton rainbow hologram has been critical to the commercial success of image-based holography. His technique for reducing the vertical parallax information in a hologram, while retaining its three-dimensional nature, made it possible to produce the white-light-viewable metallized surface-relief holograms now used as security devices on credit cards and software. Perhaps his most groundbreaking project—interactive holographic video—also required a so-called "information-theoretic" approach to make it tractable (such an approach reduces the huge volume of holographic information in a hologram). This research also pushed the boundaries of computer-generated holography, acousto-optics, optical design, and even data buffering.

Benton's contributions to the holographic and electronic-imaging communities were many and were marked by an inclusive attitude, especially to those with nontraditional backgrounds. He chaired the long-running "Practical Holography" meetings for SPIE and found funding for both artists and scientists to attend and exhibit their work. He was instrumental in rescuing the Museum of Holography (New York, NY) in 1992, bringing it to the MIT museum. In 1996, he became director of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

Benton was known for his love of sushi, his pride in being a nerd, his love of life, and the challenging twinkle in his eye. Benton died of cancer, and leaves his wife, Jeanne, son James, and daughter Julia.

"He was a wonderful member of our community bringing us an unusual liveliness and spirit, and crossing the boundaries between the arts, sciences, and technology," said Charles Vest, MIT president and holographer.

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