This blog is part of a series on the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2014.

“Help me Obi Wan Kanobi, you’re my only hope.” We all remember the screenless 3D projection of Princess Leia by R2-D2 in Star Wars. Unfortunately, the problem is that, as shown in the movie, Princess Leia violates several laws of physics. In real life, a screenless display needs to reflect light from something invisible, such as water vapour or a see-through mirror, or relays the image through some hidden optics as in an “aerial display”.

Most people think of this kind of image as a “hologram”, but that term refers specifically to displays created using a diffraction pattern, a very fine pattern of lines or pixels. If deployed properly, a hologram can give the impression of being screenless since the scene can be reconstructed in front of the physical display device. But to work well the pixels need to be about the same size as the wavelength of light that we are working with. That limits the possible scale. It’s not that difficult to make a hologram the size of a playing card, but it’s currently nearly impossible to make one the size of a cinema screen.

A few people, including my research group at the MIT Media Lab are making holographic video displays. These require significant computational power because they need a ridiculous number of pixels and we need to change them up to 60 times a second.

A relevant recent development is the return of 3D, which has been coming back every generation or so since the late 1800s. People love 3D, but they generally hate 3D glasses. Thus, recent 3D TVs have failed at home because people don’t want to wear glasses every day, but they will still tolerate them on a special occasion, such as a trip to the cinema.

The challenge now is to find a way to make 3D work at home or in the office without glasses. A screenless display might help to make that more attractive. Screenless and 3D are obviously not synonymous. There are plenty of good 3D displays that are not screenless and vice versa. But my group is interested in 3D screenless displays because those offer such great opportunities.

The goal of much of our work is to get people to stop spending their lives looking at phones and tablets and monitors and instead make the real world as magical, responsive and intelligent as the screen world. That can involve screenless displays or it can involve making physical objects intelligent and responsive.

If we can interact with a virtual object by pushing, pulling or turning it, then that’s much more appealing than making those same gestures but having the results happen on a display across the room.

One of the students in my group, Laura Perovich, is building a system called the Big Bar Chart. Imagine looking at a bar chart on your phone; it’s small and not easy to interact with. Laura is trying to make charts like that physical and human-scale.

With fabric bars, about two metres tall, an actuator that can raise or lower them and a sensor that detects someone pushing or pulling the top, you can walk into a room and engage with the data in a way you can’t with pixels on a phone. If you lower one of the bars, the others can move to show the overall effect of the change. People remember that data visualization in a way that they don’t when it’s just in Excel.

There’s also the possibility of using the world itself as a screen. Some researchers, including several colleagues at the Media Lab, have begun to explore deploying projectors, which are either worn or placed in the environment and provide responsive annotations on physical things. If we can sense what’s in front of the camera then we can project on to it. For example, if I’m looking at a piece of machinery, the instructions for how to disassemble it might be projected onto the machinery itself.

A set-up like that becomes more interesting, of course, when one can interact with it. So, when the projector knows when I’m actually touching that part of the object, it can then change what happens. Like other display technologies, these sorts of things become their most useful and engaging when they’re combined with an interaction means, and I think that those will evolve together.

Author: V. Michael Bove is currently head of the Object-Based Media group at the MIT Media Lab

The top emerging technologies and their impact will also be featured in the Global Information Technology Outlook module of Forum Academy, the online professional leadership development platform of the World Economic Forum.

Image: A 60-foot hologram of Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte jumping off of the starting block is projected over Boston Harbor in celebration of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games in Boston, Massachusetts July 27, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi