Center for Strategic Communication

It’s one of the most memorable scenes in science fiction: a 3-D, holographic Princess Leia, begging for Obi-Wan’s help. America’s spy services have just plunked down $58 million to make it real. And if you think the gadget-makers behind this “Synthetic Holographic Observation” effort weren’t inspired by Star Wars, well, take a look at this presentation (.pdf) from one of the companies that bid for the 3-D holographic displays. On page four, there’s Leia, telling Kenobi that he’s her only hope.

The military and intelligence communities have been working with holographic and 3-D displays for years. Air Force analysts, for instance, use stereoscopic glasses to pick out which targets to bomb. But the tools have been of limited utility. Some required specialty eyewear; others only displayed a few colors, or could only been seen from a few angles.

That’s not good enough, says the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity — the spy services’ equivalent of Darpa. All sorts of data now naturally comes in three dimensions, like the information generated by lidar, the laser equivalent of radar. Groups of analysts need to be able to see and interact with that information, all at once and without some clunky headgear. ”These requirements and practical operational environment constraints beg for new display technology transcending all current commercial offerings and their future projected capabilities,” Iarpa notes.

The Synthetic Holographic Observation (SHO) effort is supposed to produce these full-color “3D workstation display-systems that are simultaneously viewable by multiple people with the unaided eye,” the agency adds in its description of the program.

Iarpa first introduced the program in July of last year. Last week, the agency handed out a $58 million contract to build the prototype SHO system to Ostendo Technologies of Carlsbad, California. (Alas, they weren’t the guys who used Leia in their presentation.)

Ostendo will have to work for its millions. Not only do the displays have to show off standard overhead imagery and lidar data in 3D. The devices should let intel analysts work together to comb through the scenery — something that can’t be done with old-school maps, no matter how mention dimensions they come in. As Iarpa puts it, the SHO system has to allow for “sustained and interactive exploration of massive and dynamic, fused 3D data.” The prototype should be able to render “several terabytes” of information, the agency adds. Eventually, that data could include synthetic aperture radar and hyper-spectral imagery, too.

Within the first 18 months of the program, Ostendo will have to show off a display with at least 160 “hogels” — geekspeak for a hologram’s smallest elements; basically, the 3D equivalent of pixels. By month 45 of the project, that display must have 655,000 hogels, each able to be viewed clearly from more than 65,000 different angles. That’s almost as many ways as Leia’s famous holographic plea for assistance has been seen.