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Nate Edwards, BYU
Professor Daniel Smalley with students Wesley Rogers and Erich Nygaard in the lab at BYU's Clyde Building on Dec. 7, 2017. They are part of the team that published their invention of an optical-trap display in the journal "Nature" on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

PROVO — A BYU professor who considers himself a holographer has created a new type of 3-D display that could soon free Princess Leia from science fiction and re-create her hologram in real life.

Daniel Smalley's invention of an optical-trap display isolates a dust particle and illuminates it with red, green and blue light was published this morning in the science journal Nature.

"To all the heartbroken people out there who were disappointed when past scientific findings promised breakthroughs that would lead to seeing Princess Leia, this really is it," Smalley said.

An assistant professor of electrical engineering, Smalley said he was inspired both by the original 1977 "Star Wars" movie and by the movie "Iron Man," in which inventor Tony Stark sticks his hand into a glowing image.

Smalley was bothered by the depiction, though, because Stark moved his hand in front of the light source, which should have blocked the hologram. That problem inspired him to start thinking about deploying a floating fleet of nanobots to create an image.

Worried that his idea would leak and be stolen, Smalley worked secretly in a lab at the Clyde Building on a shoestring budget, because he didn't write grants for funding that could tip off other researchers.

The creation of what Smalley calls a photophoretic-trap volumetric display is a breakthrough. Past efforts to recreate the Princess Leia hologram in which she says, "Help me, Obi-Wan, you're my only hope," have only been steps toward a future breakthrough.

The trap eventually will lead to re-creating the holograms from "Star Wars," "Iron Man" and "Avatar."

"We're not that far," he said. "The trapping wouldn't have to work much better" to make them, though they will require tens, hundreds or thousands of particles to produce them at the same scale seen in the movies.

"This is firmly in the realm of, given the smarts and the money, it'll happen," Smalley added. "If we have as much success in the next four years as we have the past four years, that's all we'd need to get it to that size, but you never know what you'll run into."

Smalley said BYU is a natural place for such a discovery, because it was the home of Philo T. Farnsworth, whose inventions led to the creation of the first all-electric television.

"We have advanced-display DNA running through campus," said Smalley, who trained under MIT scientist Stephen Benton, who created the rainbow hologram used on the front of credit cards.

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This is the second time Smalley has been the lead researcher on a paper published by Nature. The first was about a new, cheaper technology that could create holographic, screen-based projection more similar to "Star Trek" technology.

His future work will include an effort to build holodecks like those seen in "Star Trek."

Smalley said his research could have several real-world applications, like allowing for 3-D conference calling or helping doctors see 3-D images of catheters as they thread them through veins.