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With the recent rise of competition from groups at Sony, Ford, and other companies, such a system may well be affordable enough to allow for some elementary applications within the next few years (see “Companies Working in Three Dimensions,” below). Because that system needs to calculate and display only the views signaled by the viewer’s position at any given moment, it requires only the crunch power of an ordinary PC. The LCD screen, the eye-tracking LEDs, a high-quality monitor, and the software shouldn’t add much to the total price. Perlin predicts that early-production versions aimed at specialized markets such as surgical planning will be out within three years and will be priced in the vicinity of $5,000, while the first fully holographic systems are likely to command tens of thousands of dollars. Even better, says Perlin, a few years after the first systems appear, mass-market versions of the window display will probably sell for only a few hundred dollars more than an ordinary monitor, making it a reality for the average household. Perlin, who has spun off a company  to commercialize the technology, says that the venture, NY3D, already is in discussions with several large companies, including Philips and IBM, that are interested in acquiring rights to produce the display.

But while Perlin’s pseudoholographic approach has a terrific cost edge and, at least for now, certain performance advantages over true holographic systems, it also has a few drawbacks. The system occasionally has trouble locking onto the viewer’s glowing eyes, and rapid head movements can confuse it, causing the user to experience a temporary loss of the 3-D effect. On top of that, its image, which is subject to a number of mildly distracting artifacts, including vertical bars, wavering, and ghosting, falls a bit short of the crisp realism of a real holographic image. Much of that gap will be narrowed as the system moves from raw prototype to a commercial version, but even Perlin admits that a true holographic system would be challenging to match for image quality. “We’ll certainly have commercial holographic displays, but it could take 20 or 30 years,” he says.

Fear that the holographic route could take a decade or more to reach perfection explains why even the MIT Media Lab is covering its bases: it is developing a nonholographic system that works much like the one at NYU. For his part, Benton concedes it’s possible that the real value of true holographic video, at least in the near future, may be in setting a “standard of realism” for pseudoholographic systems.

Until that standard is set, both teams will continue moving forward. For his part, Perlin has started researching what would widely be considered the ultimate in full-motion 3-D: a system that projects holograms into thin air-along the lines of R2-D2’s projection of Princess Leia in the opening minutes of the original Star Wars film. Perlin believes that ultrahigh-frequency sound waves could be employed to cause air to bend light enough to form such holograms. His students have already begun proof-of-concept experiments, but he acknowledges that a working system is likely decades away and could be “ridiculously expensive.”

In the meantime, there is reason to hope that pseudoholographic 3-D systems will become so cheap and effective that they could end up in many homes before the end of the decade. Then we’ll all have the luxury of fretting about whether there is anything worth watching on them. “The big problem with television isn’t that it’s flat,” Benton says. “It’s that they canceled Twin Peaks after two seasons.”

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