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Holograms - The Future Without The Funny Glasses

The newest 3-D video displays herald an interactive future for imaging.

A half-meter-long protein floats in midair, several centimeters in front of a monitor. It looks like an oversize curled ribbon from a birthday package. As three molecular biologists maneuver around the image, studying the complex molecule from different angles, it begins to fold, slowly twisting and interlocking into a tangled knot. Its shape is a clue to the function it performs in the human body: some proteins produce chemical reactions or behave like a kind of scaffolding for cells, while others help with cell division. Creation of a drug that encourages or blocks a protein's action—say, preventing cancerous cells from dividing—could lead to more effective treatments. One of the researchers uses a stylus to prod the protein at several points. As she does so, the protein refolds itself, revealing a location that could be targeted with a drug to inhibit the protein's function.

This kind of interactive science is on the way, and it will be made possible by a new generation of 3-D video displays. The technology enlists the power of holograms—or reasonable facsimiles thereof—to dish up startlingly realistic images that appear to pop out of the screen. Imagine the 3-D scenes produced by the venerable View-Master toy cranked up to "11" on the reality dial. But the new 3-D video images won't require special viewing devices. Users won't have to don the headgear or eyewear that tends to be distracting and can cause eyestrain, as they do with current so-called 3-D displays.

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