Holographic imagery enters industrial mainstream

Six years ago, Zebra Imaging founders Mark Holzbach, Michael Klug and Alejandro Ferdman made a holographic image big and substantial enough to serve as a three-dimensional, full-color, 50%-scale model of a Ford concept car.

AUSTIN, TX - Six years ago, Zebra Imaging founders Mark Holzbach, Michael Klug and Alejandro Ferdman made a holographic image big and substantial enough to serve as a three-dimensional, full-color, 50%-scale model of a Ford concept car (see Laser Focus World, February 1999, p. 14). Now the corporate team is investing the founders’ original technical wizardry with the high-resolution, fast turnaround times, and snappy cost points required for applications ranging from automotive and architectural design to military mapping and medical imaging. The first two production systems went online this spring.

Robin Curle, CEO of Zebra, differentiates the company’s computer generated holographic images from the photographic holograms generated directly from a physical object, however. As with the two-dimensional pixels in a digital image, Zebra’s holograms are constructed of thousands of holographic pixels, referred to as hogels. The prototype system that modeled the Ford concept car was a “slow color imager”, according to Curle, that took from three to four days for the complete process of assembling CAD data into 2-mm hogels, assembling tens of thousands of hogels into 2-foot by 2-foot holographic tiles, and then assembling the tiles into an almost full-sized holographic image of an automobile.

In addition to the time required for construction, shortcomings of the original prototype included a lack of the fine detail needed for industrial design work because the hogels were too large. So the current generation of holographic imagers, focused specifically on the needs of automotive, military and architectural customers, have halved the hogel size to 1 mm, which boosts resolution by a factor of four. They’ve also reduced the time for assembling a 2-foot by 2-foot tile from three days to 90 minutes by producing what Curle referred to as high-speed monochrome, instead of slow color imagery.

The color of the monochrome is green, fittingly perhaps considering Zebra’s paying customers such as Ford (Dearborn, MI), British Aerospace (Hampshire, United Kingdom), and DARPA-companies that tend to be early technology adopters, use lots of 3D imagery, and also rely on iterative processes that can incorporate holography. In the auto industry, for instance, using holography instead of physical models reduces design time on the order of 85 to 90% and time to the market by about a year, Curle said. Design costs plummet by about 65%.Zebra has also built a replicator that produces exact copies of 2-foot by 2-foot color holographic tiles in only 90 seconds, and a haptics capability enables users to actually touch holographic features using a stylus.

The quest is far from over, however. Zebra Imaging is about to release ?-mm hogels to boost resolution by another factor of four. The added resolution is expected to enable Zebra’s beautifully detailed holographic models to take on the precise tolerances of engineering and design applications, and eventually to launch into the next vertical market step, medicine. By this time next year, Zebra is expecting a return to full color at high speed, enabled by currently proceeding laser and engineering improvements.

The roadmap for the next five years calls for initially rewriteable holographic images that can be refreshed periodically with new data; leading ultimately to interactive, real-time holographic imagery; in which the current 95-100 degree full parallax viewing angles are increased to 180 degrees; on faster holographic systems. According to Curle, the systems currently operate at 60 Hz. But they could easily operate at 100 Hz once fast liquid-crystal display panels become commercially available.

Since making the process faster also makes it less expensive, increased speed is also likely to broaden the base of potential applications significantly.

-Hassaun A. Jones-Bey

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