Stars Wars fans, rejoice! Inspired by holographic Princess Leia’s iconic plea for help, BYU engineers have brought sci-fi images to life —including light-saber battles and, for the Trekkies, laser fire between the starship Enterprise and a Klingon battle cruiser.

While movie holograms are created by computers in postproduction, these displays, developed by electrical-engineering professor Daniel E. Smalley and the BYU holography research group, exist in the real world. Unlike 2D holograms, Smalley’s images—called volumetric displays—are physical, 3D images created by trapping a small particle with lasers and moving it back and forth quickly to create glowing lines that float in the air.

Professor Dan Smalley stands in his lab in between two of his student researchers, Erich J. Nygaard on the left and Wesley R. Rogers on the right.
Professor Dan Smalley, center, and students Erich J. Nygaard (BS ’18, MS ’21), left, and Wesley R. Rogers (BS ’18, MS ’20), right, developed the Princess Leia project as part of BYU’s holography research team. Photo by Nate Edwards.

Most volumetric displays are limited to the size of the small display case, so Smalley and his team use motion parallax—changing the images as the viewer moves around the scene—to give the illusion that the images exist outside the display.

“The future won’t be the future without a Princess Leia projector,” says Smalley, “and [this volumetric display] can make that a reality.”

More From This Issue


Meet Mr. Curiosity

With the mind of an engineer and the humor of a 12-year-old, an alum is making the internet better, one prank at a time.


Good Enough

What does it mean for something—or someone—to be good? And who gets to decide? A BYU creative writer explores goodness.


There Must Needs Be a Christ

What would the world be like without Christ? This devotional address explores why there “must needs be a Christ.”

Browse the complete Summer 2021 Issue »

More Articles

At the Y

Better Than a Hologram

Inspired by Star Wars, engineering professor Daniel Smalley is making “holograms” a reality.

The Y Report

Good Night, Night Mode

Does night mode really help you sleep better? BYU psychology researchers put it to the test.

The Y Report

Facing the Past

A recent biology grad is sculpting faces atop ancient hominid skull replicas for an exhibit at BYU.

Share this article:

To use more share options on your device, please scan the same QR code and open the link in the latest version of Chrome or Safari