By: Jim Stein
History teaches that to observe, and then to understand, is the first step to victory. At one point a wooden horse full of Soldiers was all you needed to sack a city. Too bad the Trojans didn’t have today’s imaging technology — the Greeks never would have made it past the gate. But even today’s advanced sensor technologies, which produce all manner of 3D sensor data streams, challenge our ability to interpret and understand the available raw 3D data due to the limitations of 2D displays.
From radar, sonar, and x-rays to lasers and multispectral technologies, new imaging systems are offering more options for warfighters to gain a strategic advantage in situational awareness. And the next big advance could provide the most comprehensive view yet. 3D volumetric displays could give warfighters a glasses-free, full color, high-resolution three-dimensional perspective of the battlespace — on, above, and even below it, depending on the environment.
These 3D volumetric systems aren’t yet in the hands of warfighters because the several prototypes are not yet easily scalable. But a new kind of laser glass could change that soon, improving situational awareness across the full gamut of battlefield environments. And like many defense technologies, 3D volumetric displays will eventually have applications far beyond the battlefield that could make the world safer, more aware, and better informed.
How 3D volumetric displays work
3D volumetric displays will be key to the ongoing development and evolution of display technology. The latest research and development out of SCHOTT Defense’s joint development partner, 3DIcon, offers a glimpse of that future. Its volumetric displays create a 3D image by projecting precisely coordinated laser beams into a medium containing rare earth materials, exciting those materials to display a monochromatic image, though full-color images are planned for the future.
3DIcon’s CSpace technology is developing a unique clear host material doped with rare-earth ions to create a transparent 3D projection medium capable of fluorescence. This achievement means the CSpace 3D volumetric displays don’t require special eyeglasses or viewing aids, nor do they cause fatigue during prolonged use. CSpace allows the full display, manipulation, and exploitation of internal volume imaging as well, whereas other laser display systems, such as holographic displays, can only render surface volume, and are unable to show an interior view.
Glass is the enabling and critical material acting as the host medium for the laser-excited rare earth materials. A new kind of laser glass could improve the quality of the image and the efficiency of the laser, while also facilitating the rapid scaling of 3D volumetric display systems so they can be deployed to warfighters en masse. The glass’ laser properties, customizability to different compositions, and manufacturability all make it integral to the laser system used to project the 3D images.
Beyond defense: The broad impact of 3D volumetric displays
While this technology is moving beyond prototype development, it would most immediately benefit intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) situational awareness. By finally being able to display 3D data such as radar and sonar plots in real 3D, one can instantly and intuitively understand the actual spatial relationships between objects, elements, and environments.
3D volumetric displays could also improve applications that involve parameters of space and distance and offer multiple points of view without requiring artificial depth cues like lighting, shading, and perspective. Here are five ways 3D volumetric displays could eventually transform the wider world outside defense:
1. Faster airport security checks and border crossings. By fully capturing the 3D capability of x-ray imagery, border and customs inspectors can more effectively scan and observe the interiors of vehicles, trucks, shipping containers, and packages. True 3D displays offer officials multiple perspectives to resolve ambiguity. TSA screeners would gain a clearer view of the objects in your suitcase, potentially reducing additional screenings of suspect luggage.
2. Safer air traffic control. Several recent near-crashes between airplanes have raised scrutiny over air traffic control systems. Current systems display the position of airplanes as icons on a flat 2D display. With 3D volumetric displays, however, operators would have a more comprehensive overview of the airspace and planes’ location in relation to one another and better navigate them to and from runways.
3. Better preparations for natural disasters and more. The federal government undertakes geospatial exploration in which it collects, maintains, and uses information linked to geographic locations to help in decision-making and to support national security, law enforcement, health care, environmental protection, and natural resources conservation, among other functions. 3D volumetric displays would offer more information for geospatial analysis that could improve road maintenance and natural disaster responses.
4. More accurate oil and gas exploration. Seismic data is critical in assessing a particular area for potential oil and gas extraction. However, seismic data suffers because 3D data is still underutilized by 2D displays. 3D volumetric displays, by offering a detailed 3D depiction of where deposits might lie, how large they are, and how accessible they might be, can make the expensive process of oil and gas exploration more efficient, accurate, and productive.
5. Greater visibility during medical operations. MRIs and CAT scans are incredibly powerful diagnostic tools rich in 3D data. 3D volumetric displays can provide volume rendering of the surface and the interior of any human organ, increasing the effectiveness of real-time imaging systems for doctors and surgeons who need better awareness of what’s happening inside the human body.
For now, these innovative 3D volumetric displays are still in the early development phase, but could be boosted by government funding. The U.S. government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) fund fuels just this kind of advancement, and SCHOTT Defense and 3DIcon are pursuing funding from the full spectrum of interested agencies, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to the National Institutes of Health.
While the current imperative is on improving the operational capabilities of the warfighter, the potential future applications are diverse and transformative, changing the way border patrol agents, air traffic controllers, seismologists, and doctors observe and understand the world around them.