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A 3-D Display for Your Car

A startup has built a glasses-free 3-D screen that’s much bigger than its previous prototype, bringing it a step closer to being built into gadgets (including the one in your driveway).

Holographic technology could make displays feel more interactive.

Your next car could have a 3-D dashboard—no glasses required.

Renderings show the developer kit of the holographic display startup Leia.

A startup called Leia, which has already shown a prototype of a 2.2-inch screen that can display holograms, is now working on a 5.5-inch screen that gives a sense of how the technology could look if embedded in things like cars and smartphones.

I saw the larger prototype during a visit to Leia’s office in Menlo Park, California. Founder and CEO David Fattal used it to show me several different images that appeared to have a few centimeters of depth, such as a simple digital clock moving against a brick-wall background, a skeletal torso, and a satellite map of Switzerland. I could see the images if I was between 50 centimeters and a meter from the display; otherwise they looked flat. They were in color, though not very bright, and could be viewed from a number of different angles without appearing to break up into the different images of which the hologram is actually composed.

Fattal hopes Leia’s displays will eventually be used in a variety of electronics ranging from smart watches and smartphones to appliances to cars, letting you do things like have screens with reconfigurable 3-D buttons or have a 3-D chat with another person. Fattal says the company is talking to carmakers and other electronics companies, and he expects that to be one of the first places where Leia’s technology is available, hopefully starting in 2017.

In the meantime, the company plans to get developers acquainted with it by taking orders in September for a developer kit that will include the smaller-sized display for showing holographic images and videos. The display, which will plug into a computer, will be monochrome (though Fattal says a still-in-development color mode will also be possible), and it will include an accelerometer, gyroscope, and hover-touch capability for manipulating on-screen images. It’s not yet clear what the price will be, though Leia says it will be less than $500, and the kits are expected to ship out in December.

Leia’s technology emerged from Fattal’s earlier work as a researcher at HP Labs, where he worked on optical interconnects—a way to use light to transport information on a chip—which requires directing light with nanoscale control (see “35 Innovators Under 35: David Fattal”). He figured that work, which involved using tiny diffraction patterns to precisely control the angles taken by light waves that hit them, could also be used to make 3-D images appear to pop out of a display. Leia has figured out how to do this with a standard liquid-crystal display panel on the face and diffraction patterns below it that help push light from a backlight in specific angles and control the light’s angular distribution (see “New Display Technology Lets LCDs Produce Princess Leia-Style Holograms”).

An image that you see on a Leia display is actually composed of a grid of numerous slightly different pictures; your brain is fooled into thinking it’s one continuous, 3-D image, even if you move or tilt your head somewhat. The developer kit display will show images visible from 64 different viewpoints, Fattal says, composed of a grid of eight by eight slightly different pictures, which means a user effectively sees one out of 64 pixels at a time, or one-eighth of the display’s actual resolution. The larger prototype he showed me has just 32 different viewpoints (images it showed were composed of a grid of eight by four pictures).

Because this method of showing users images effectively dilutes the initial overall resolution, it may be tricky to make large high-resolution Leia displays. But Fattal says that on the smaller end, at least, the smartphone-sized 4k displays, which are just starting to be revealed, will help make the images look good.

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