How a Real 3D Display Works

There’s a new display technique that’s making the blog rounds, and like anything that seems like its torn from [George Lucas]’ cutting room floor, it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s a device that can display voxels in midair, forming low-resolution three-dimensional patterns without any screen, any fog machine, or any reflective medium. It’s really the closest thing to the projectors in a holodeck we’ve seen yet, leading a few people to ask how it’s done.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this. A few years ago. a similar 3D display technology was demonstrated that used a green laser to display tens of thousands of voxels in a display medium. The same company used this technology to draw white voxels in air, without a smoke machine or anything else for the laser beam to reflect off of. We couldn’t grasp how this worked at the time, but with a little bit of research we can find the relevant documentation.

A system like this was first published in 2006, built upon earlier work that only displayed pixels on a 2D plane. The device worked by taking an infrared Nd:YAG laser, and focusing the beam to an extremely small point. At that point, the atmosphere heats up enough to turn into plasma and turns into a bright, if temporary, point of light. With the laser pulsing several hundred times a second, a picture can be built up with these small plasma bursts.


Moving a ball of plasma around in 2D space is rather easy; all you need are a few mirrors. To get a third dimension to projected 3D images, a lens mounted on a linear rail moves back and forth changing the focal length of the optics setup. It’s an extremely impressive optical setup, but simple enough to get the jist of.

Having a device that projects images with balls of plasma leads to another question: how safe is this thing? There’s no mention of how powerful the laser used in this device is, but in every picture of this projector, people are wearing goggles. In the videos – one is available below – there is something that is obviously missing once you notice it: sound. This projector is creating tiny balls of expanding air hundreds of times per second. We don’t know what it sounds like – or if you can hear it at all – but a constant buzz would limit its application as an advertising medium.

As with any state-of-the-art project where we kinda know how it works, there’s a good chance someone with experience in optics could put something like this together. A normal green laser pointer in a water medium would be much safer than an IR YAG laser, but other than that the door is wide open for a replication of this project.

Thanks [Sean] for sending this in.

Continue reading “How a Real 3D Display Works”

Reverse Engineering a Blu-ray Drive for Laser Graffiti

There’s a whole lot of interesting mechanics, optics, and electronics inside a Blu-ray drive, and [scanlime] a.k.a. [Micah Scott] thinks those bits can be reused for some interesting project. [Micah] is reverse engineering one of these drives, with the goal of turning it into a source of cheap, open source holograms and laser installations – something these devices were never meant to do. This means reverse engineering the 3 CPUs inside an external Blu-ray drive, making sense of the firmware, and making this drive do whatever [Micah] wants.

When the idea of reverse engineering a Blu-ray drive struck [Micah], she hopped on Amazon and found the most popular drive out there. It turns out, this is an excellent drive to reverse engineer – there are multiple firmware updates for this drive, an excellent source for the raw data that would be required to reverse engineer it.

[Micah]’s first effort to reverse engineer the drive seems a little bit odd; she turned the firmware image into a black and white graphic. Figuring out exactly what’s happening in the firmware with that is a fool’s errand, but by looking at the pure black and pure white parts of the graphic, [Micah] was able guess where the bootloader was, and how the firmware image is segmented. In other parts of the code, [Micah] saw thing vertical lines she recognized as ARM code. In another section, thin horizontal black bands revealed code for an 8051. These lines are only a product of how each architecture accesses code, and really only something [Micah] recognizes from doing this a few times before.

The current state of the project is a backdoor that is able to upload new firmware to the drive. It’s in no way a complete project; only the memory for the ARM processor is running new code, and [Micah] still has no idea what’s going on inside some of the other chips. Still, it’s a start, and the beginning of an open source firmware for a Blu-ray drive.

While [Micah] want’s to use these Blu-ray drives for laser graffiti, there are a number of other slightly more useful reasons for the build. With a DVD drive, you can hold a red blood cell in suspension, or use the laser inside to make graphene. Video below.

Continue reading “Reverse Engineering a Blu-ray Drive for Laser Graffiti”

A Folding Laser Cutter

Want a laser cutter, but don’t have the space for one? How about a portable machine to engrave and cut wood and plastics? A folding laser cutter solves these problems, and that’s exactly what Red Ant Lasers was showing off last weekend at Maker Faire.

Inside the team’s Origami laser cutter is a 40 Watt CO2 tube, shooting its beam along an entirely enclosed beam path. The beam travels through the body of the machine, out into the folding arm of the machine, and down to whatever material you’ve placed the Origami on. It’s a 40 Watt laser so it will cut plywood and plastics, and as shown in the video above, does a fine job at engraving plywood.

This is a Class 4 laser device operating without any safety glass, but from the short time I spent with the Red Ant team, this is a reasonably safe device. You will need safety glasses if you’re within five feet, but after that, everything (according to OSHA, I think) is safe and not dangerous. Either way, it’s a tool just like a table saw. You don’t see commentors on the Internet complaining about how a spinning metal blade is dangerous all the time, do you?

The Red Ant guys are currently running a Kickstarter for their project, with a complete unit going for $4200. It’s pricier than a lot of other lasers, but not being constrained by the size of a laser cutters enclosure does open up a few interesting possibilities. You could conceivably cut a 4×8 sheet of plywood with this thing, and exceptionally large engravings start looking easy when you have a portable laser cutter.

THP Semifinalst: Laser Solder Paste


A relative latecomer to The Hackaday Prize, [AltMarcxs] has nevertheless come up with a very interesting tool for fabrication, the likes of which no one has ever seen before. It’s a rotating laser soldering paste applicator, meant to be an add-on to a CNC machine. What does it do? RIght now it looks extremely cool while being an immense time sink for [AltMarcxs], but the potential is there for being much more than that, ranging from a pick and place machine that also dispenses solder paste, to the closest thing you’ll ever get to a carbon fiber printer.

[AltMarcxs]’s build consists of two 3W laser diodes focused just beyond the tip of the syringe. The syringe dispenses solder paste, and rotating the diodes around, [Alt] is able to put a melted solder blob anywhere on a piece of perfboard. He put up a reasonably well focused video demonstrating this.

With a few homebrew pick and place machines making the semifinalist cut for The Hackaday Prize, it’s easy to see the utility of something like this: Putting a board in a machine, pressing a button, and waiting a bit for a completely populated and soldered board is a dream of the electronic hobbyist rivaled only by a cheap and easy way to make PCBs at home. [AltMarxcs]’s machine could be one step on the way to this, but there are a few other ideas he’d like to explore first.

The build also has wire feeders that allow a bit of copper wire to be soldered to the newly formed metal blob. There are plans to replace this with a composite fiber, replace the paste in the syringe with a UV resin, cut the fiber and cure the resin with the laser, and build something much better than other carbon fiber 3D printers we’ve seen before.

SpaceWrencherThe project featured in this post is a semifinalist in The Hackaday Prize. 

A 3D(ollar) Scanner


Once you have a 3D printer, making copies of objects like a futuristic Xerox machine is the name of the game. There are, of course, 3D scanners available for hundreds of dollars, but [Joshua] wanted something a bit cheaper. He built his own 3D scanner for exactly $2.73 in parts, salvaging the rest from the parts bin at his local hackerspace.

[Josh]’s scanner is pretty much just a lazy suzan (that’s where he spent the money), with a stepper motor drive. A beam of laser light shines on whatever object is placed on the lazy suzan, and a USB webcam feeds the data to a computer. The build is heavily influenced from this Instructables build, but [Josh] has a few tricks up his sleeve: this is the only laser/camera 3D scanner that can solve a point cloud with the camera in any vertical position. This potentially means algorithmic calibration, and having the copied and printed object come out the same size as the original. You can check out that code on the git.

Future improvements to [Josh]’s 3D scanner include the ability to output point clouds and STLs, meaning anyone can go straight from scanning an object to slicing it for a 3D printer. That’s a lot of interesting software features for something that was basically pulled out of the trash.

A DIY Geomagnetic Observatory

Magnetometer observatory

[Dr. Fortin] teaches physics at a French High School, and to get his students interested in the natural world around them, he built a geomagnetic observatory, able to tell his students if they have a chance at seeing an aurora, or if a large truck just drove by.

We’ve seen this sort of device before, and the basic construction is extremely similar – a laser shines on a mirror attached to magnets. When a change occurs in the local magnetic field, the mirror rotates slightly and the laser beam is deflected. Older versions have used photoresistors, but [the doctor] is shining his laser on a piece of paper and logging everything with a webcam and a bit of OpenCV.

The design is a huge improvement over earlier DIY attempts at measuring the local magnetic field, if only because the baseline between the webcam and mirror are so long. When set up in his house, the magnetometer can detect cars parked in front of his building, but the data he’s collecting (French, but it’s just a bunch of graphs) is comparable to the official Russian magnetic field data.

THP Entry: A Repurposed Luminiferous Aether Detector

laserIn the late 1800s, no one knew what light was. Everyone knew it behaved like a wave some of the time, but all waves need to travel through some propagation medium. This propagation medium was called the luminiferous aether and an attempt to detect and quantify this aether led to one of the coolest experimental setups of all time: the Michelson-Morely experiment. It was a huge interferometer mounted on a gigantic slab of marble floating in a pool of mercury. By rotating the interferometer, Michelson and Morely expected to see a small phase shift in the interferometer, both confirming the existence of a luminiferous aether and giving them how fast the Earth moved through this medium.

Of course, there was no phase shift, throwing physics into chaos for a few years. When [Beaglebreath] first learned about the Michelson-Morely interferometer he was amazed by the experimental setup. He’s built a few interferometers over the years, but for The Hackaday Prize, he’s making something useful out of one of these luminiferous aether detectors: a functional laser rangefinder capable of measuring distances of up to 60 inches with an error of 0.000005 inches.

The core of the system is an HP 5528A laser interferometer system. [Beaglebreath] has been collecting the individual components of this system off of eBay for several years now, and amazingly, he has all the parts. That’s dedication, right there. This laser interferometer system will be mounted to a simple camera slider, and with the interferometer measurements, humidity and temperature measurements, and some interesting code (running on one of these for hacker cred), [Beaglebreath] stands a good shot at measuring things very, very accurately.

The devil is in the details, and when you’re measuring things this precisely there are a lot of details. The original Michelson-Morely interferometer was affected by passing horse-drawn carriages and even distant lightning storms. While [Beaglebreath] isn’t using as long of a beam path as the OG interferometer, he’ll still have a lot of bugs to squash to bring this project to its full potential.

SpaceWrencherThe project featured in this post is an entry in The Hackaday Prize. Build something awesome and win a trip to space or hundreds of other prizes.