By Dolly Rairigh Glass

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DAPRPA) recently completed a five-year program called Urban Photonic Sandtable Display (UPSD), one of the projects that Michelle Kalphat, Chief Engineer and DARPA agent at the U.S. Army Research and Development and Engineering Command, Simulation and Training Technology Center (ARL STTC), has been involved with for nearly five years. What seemed like ‘out there’ science fiction, as we all intensely watched and listened as Stars War’s R2-D2 delivered the holographic message, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” from Princess Leia, is now a reality and is being examined by many military Services, as well as other industries.

The Urban Photonic Sandtable Display is technology developed by Defense Advanced Research Products Agency and currently being transitioned by the US Army Research and Development Simulation Training and Technology Center in conjunction with Army G2.

The Urban Photonic Sandtable Display is technology developed by Defense Advanced Research Products Agency and currently being transitioned by the US Army Research and Development Simulation Training and Technology Center in conjunction with Army G2.

The UPSD display creates a real-time, color, 360-degree 3D holographic display without having to wear 3D goggles or glasses. This allows for a team of planners to view a large-format, potentially interactive 3D display. Until now, two-dimensional, high-resolution flat panel color displays and 3D static monochrome images have been the most advanced visual planning tools available.

Like Princess Leia’s holographic image, the UPSD images are also dynamic, which means that the images move. Additionally, Kalphat is working projects that involve static, or stationary, images. With both of these technologies, she is exploring how this technology could support other applications and how best to transition it for their use. “Now there’s not only an emphasis by DARPA on funding research and exploring cutting edge technology, but to also find a path for utilization somewhere either commercially or within the Services,” Kalphat said.

And for the USPD project, Kalphat notes there are quite a few opportunities for use. As long as there is 3D data available in any format, the tabletop display will project the image. It’s the only full parallax holographic generator available, which means that viewers can walk around the image and look at it from different angles.

Holographic images like these are produced using the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display.  The technology uses 3D data and creates images from it that can be used for a variety of purposes.

Holographic images like these are produced using the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display. The technology uses 3D data and creates images from it that can be used for a variety of purposes.

Currently, this technology is being used by the Army G2 to integrate the results of the protection software, for training in 3D situational awareness. The Air Force research lab also invested in this technology, and there is interest from the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) who are interested in its potential as a mission rehearsal tool.

But uses go far beyond the battlefield, and Kalphat recently met with medical staff from Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), an office of the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC), who have contracted her lab to build various anatomical models to be used primarily for education. Healthy anatomical models, as well as various pathologies, will be displayed in both static and dynamic images.

Future hopes for this technology include supporting surgical training activities. For example, surgeons training for cataract surgery learn by watching and studying other cataract surgeries and then performing supervised surgeries on ‘live’ patients. This would be one way to enhance ‘practicing’ the surgery without having to increase risk with patients. She has also received interest from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) for developing a bomb image with different viewpoints and layers that students would use to acquire skills needed for disarming a bomb.

The border patrol also acknowledged how beneficial the technology would be to their trainees when trying to learn the terrain of an area. “It was really hard for the students to memorize from a topographical map,” explained Kalphat, “but it’s so much easier to see the terrain and understand it when it’s in 3D. It’s not just flat; it’s an actual raised image on the static film you can view with the naked eye.”

Kalphat says that capabilities for the UPSD are endless. “This is the thing about this technology,” Kalphat says with confidence, “you could look at this yourself and come up with an idea.”