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What are Phased Array Optics?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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Phased array optics (PAO) is the idea of creating two-dimensional (2-D) arrays of tiny screens programmed to emit light that is the specific amplitude and phase necessary to create the illusion of a three-dimensional (3-D) image. Implementing this concept would require a lot of computing power; many equations must be solved instantly to create the appropriate optical output. This technology was mostly conceptual as of 2011, but with advances such as nanoelectronics, portable phased array optics could become practical. The seminal article on phased array optics was written by Dr. Brian Wowk and is a chapter of the book Nanotechnology: Speculations on Molecular Abundance.

Theoretical Uses

If a large number of mini-screens are used and their states are updated rapidly enough, any 3-D image can be projected using phased array optics. The illusion would be convincing to anyone with the 2-D screen in their line of sight. A room with walls covered in phased array optics could operate like a "holodeck" from Star Trek, in which holographic images are projected into the room.

Phased array optics could have many other uses. A suit covered in flexible PAOs could provide an illusion of invisibility by projecting an image of whatever is behind the user or give the illusion of the user being very far away or very close to any specific observer. Large phased array optics could simulate the appearance of entire cities at a level of resolution so fine that the illusion would be preserved even if binoculars were used. Extremely large PAOs surrounding a planet could provide the illusion of the planet being anywhere.

Futuristic Technology

There is great technical difficulty in manufacturing so many tiny screens and their corresponding computational hardware, so this technology is thought of as futuristic. It is often mentioned as an application of advanced nanotechnology. Crude so-called "invisibility suits" have been demonstrated but are very expensive, and they generally provide the illusion only to observers from one point of view.

A Virtual Reality

Aside from tapping directly into the optic nerve, phased array optics might offer the best way to project a virtual reality. Screens at any distance from the user could be used to simulate objects at nearly any distance. PAOs could allow the realistic creation of landscapes never before seen on Earth. As of 2011, PAOs were expected to be among the first applications of nanotechnology, with the arrival of usable technology considered to be likely by 2020.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By David09 — On Dec 19, 2011

@MrMoody - I’ll bet you anything the first applications will hit video games before they hit military applications. Actually the two are quite related.

I think a lot of game applications are used in tandem with the military and vice-versa. Think war games and stuff like that. I foresee people being able to use visors with these optical arrays and using them to engage in real time role playing adventures.

If you think video game addiction is bad now, just wait until these things come along. It will be like the Wii on steroids.

By allenJo — On Dec 19, 2011

@MrMoody - I realize that this is being touted as an aid for those who are visually impaired. I suppose it could be truly beneficial in that regard.

But doesn’t the thought of optical software and hardware being hardwired into your eyes and nerves kind of scare you a little? Imagine walking around in the real world with a virtual world projected from such a device.

You would seem to live in a twilight of sorts, almost as if you were living in the Matrix or something like that.

By MrMoody — On Dec 18, 2011

@Charred - I don’t think it’s as far off as you think. Nanotechnology is already being used in some applications so I don’t think it will be long before scientists are able to create the miniature screens necessary to make this work.

When that happens, however, I think that you can count on military grade applications taking precedence over consumer applications. The invisibility suit for example would be very useful to soldiers out on the battlefield, as would the ability to make entire tanks – or even towns – seem to disappear.

By Charred — On Dec 17, 2011

@anon97135 - Yes, I think it is – and you are right to call it a “showstopper.” The optical phased array seems highly theoretical and speculative. At what point do we simply determine the technology is simply impossible given the computing requirements?

If what we are trying to do is to create something like a “holodeck,” are there not existing technologies which could accomplish the same ends? After all we already have holograms.

I propose that a “holodeck” could be created more simply by using light sources from multiple directions, rather than relying on a projection from a 2D optical array. I think it would be easier anyway.

By anon97135 — On Jul 18, 2010

Is the computational requirement the only showstopper for this tech? This seems so far-future.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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