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Whatever Became of Holography?

The once-futuristic technology has less public glamour nowadays, but it still plays a current role in science

Sean F. Johnston

2011-11JohnstonF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageA generation ago, hologram exhibitions attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors in major cities around the world, and entrepreneurs confidently forecast applications in art, photography and television. As holography became more ubiquitous, however, it lost some of its luster for public audiences as well as for professional scientists and engineers. But the technology still makes an impact today, although not with the same punch it had a quarter-century ago. Popular culture celebrates it through science fiction and a steady trickle of news reports about imminent consumer advances—although there are a number of modern instances where semi-transparent images of television announcers and pop stars are mislabeled as holograms, further confusing consumers who don’t understand what holograms are realistically capable of showing.

The field that once represented futuristic progress gradually has been recast as a fertile technique at the heart of modern science, and ongoing research continues to pay dividends. But the science and technology may now seem old-hat. Where the field of digital electronics offers real-time, high-definition displays and three-dimensional television, much of holography remains stolidly analog. Audiences once amazed by lasers and stunningly realistic holograms have become jaded in the face of ubiquitous and unremarkable credit-card icons. And yet the history of this field illustrates some of the best science and most impressive technology of the past two generations. How did holography get to this point, and where might it be going?

The answers are often surprising even to many of the participants in the field, because holography has been continually fragmented between disciplines as distinct as art and electronics research, with some of this separation dating back to the end of World War II. For a subject often deemed unintuitive, it has been frequently reinvented: The field and its possibilities were conceived afresh for waves of successive audiences. Although holography remains a magical and inspirational field ripe with possibilities, it also demonstrates the dangers of unrefined forecasting and rosy visions of progress. Beyond the enduring fascination of the subject itself, holography provides important lessons for understanding the cultural factors behind scientific advances and technological change.

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