How Things Work: Heliodisplay

When computers first allowed people to manipulate the image on the screen, people were fascinated. Take away the screen and leave the image suspended in air, and people will feel as if they have been transported years into the future.

This is the idea of a company named IO2 Technology, which has developed a device that projects an image onto the air above it. This seemingly impossible technology is trademarked by IO2 Technology under the name “heliodisplay,” and can receive input from a computer, television, or even from video game consoles, and project the image on a floating screen of air. The image can even give the appearance of a floating, holographic, 3-D image.

Furthermore, the image can also be manipulated by touch: A finger or some hand-held object can act as a mouse and seemingly drag images in midair. Hand movements are monitored by an optical tracking system, which is essentially a camera in the unit that monitors and locates movements and changes in the location of your hand.

This technology was successful at an early technology demonstration in Lake Forest, Ill., in 2003. People moved a cursor that interacted with colored circles, and dragged images of skeletons and DNA around the screen.

Although demonstrations of the technology have been given, many technical aspects of the way the heliodisplay works have not been revealed to the public. However, the overall concept relies on electronics and thermodynamics. The screen itself is created by particles that are already in the room. According to an interview for the technology blog OhGizmo! with Chad Dyner, the inventor of the product, the machine creates a temperature difference in the air directly above the machine, causing condensation in the air. A laser is then used to project images onto the screen of condensing air above it.

The official patent for this product reveals little more. On the United States Patent and Trademark Office website, Dyner explains, “[The system] creates a dynamic, non-solid particle cloud by ejecting atomized condensate present in the surrounding air, in a controlled fashion, into an invisible particle cloud.” This is similar to the way a nozzle on a hose turns a stream of water into mist; it takes a larger stream of water and converts it into a cloud of smaller water molecules.

Instead of water, a heliodisplay runs on particles already present in the air. Particles in the air are converted into nearly atom-sized particles, and are re-emitted upward through a dozen metal plates. These particles, about the size of printer ink droplets, are held together by surface tension and form a cloud that can act as a screen. By changing the molecular properties of this cloud, the qualities of the image, like brightness and sharpness, can also be changed. Currently, a disadvantage is that the screen is essentially air, so it can become distorted with too much air movement in the room.

Other companies have developed similar technologies that project images in different ways. A Finnish company, FogScreen, has developed a machine that creates an image in midair by projecting an image onto a screen of water vapor between two layers of air, which protect the fog from external air movement. Like the heliodisplay, it can be touched, and even walked through.
However, the FogScreen has its limitations. FogScreens use water vapor, so touching the “screen” feels wet. Heliodisplay screens are air, and they feel dry. In addition, FogScreens are not yet interactive, although researchers are working to implement interactive technology.

Another company, Actuality Systems, has created a true 3-D image that floats in midair, but the image is enclosed and of a lower resolution than a heliodisplay. It is mainly used for medical purposes. They are currently working to create a more interactive, open-air display.

Heliodisplay is a new technology and is still not intended for personal use. As of now, heliodisplays are used mostly in public venues or corporate situations, like museums, in advertising and publicity, shopping malls, and corporate lobbies. According to The New York Times, Dyner envisions the product to be used in conference rooms, allowing multiple users to manipulate the image at once.
Many people are still skeptical about the extent to which this product can be used; some have even dismissed it as an interesting but useless piece of technology. But Bob Ely, a consultant for IO2 Technology, describes its potential in The New York Times: “People looked at the first flight of the Wright brothers and said: ‘Only 120 feet? I can walk 120 feet. What do we need this thing for?’ Add ten years and it’s a totally different world.”