Three-dimensional holographic images are a mainstay in sci-fi films, from Princess Leia's cry for help in Star Wars, to the holographic maps in Avatar. But in real life, we've struggled to achieve the same effect without the use of annoying 3D glasses.

Now scientists from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia have used a graphene-based material to create a full-colour, pop-up, 3D floating display - visible from a wide angle with the naked eye.

The effect was created using a graphene oxide, and could be applied to the touch-screen surface of smartphones or watches, the authors Min Gu and Xiangping Li explain over at The Conversation.

Holograms work by bending light off the screen in a carefully controlled way so that, instead of bouncing directly back into your eye, it makes it appear as though it's projected off a separate display. The Swinburne researchers were able to create the floating 3D display by tweaking the refractive index - the measure of how much light bends as it passes through a medium - of graphene oxide. This allowed them to create tiny, nanoscale pixels that make up floating 3D images, visible to the naked eye.

"If you can change the refractive index you can create lots of optical effects," said Gu in a press release. "Our technique can be leveraged to achieve compact and versatile optical components for controlling light. We can create the wide angle display necessary for mobile phones and tablets."

Importantly, the process doesn't involve any heating or change in temperature, and instead relies on a rapidly pulsing laser beam to reduce the graphene oxide, which causes the change in the way the light bends.

"Our technique enables the reconstructed floating 3D object to be vividly and naturally viewed in a wide angle up to 52 degrees," write the authors. This is an order of magnitude greater than researchers have managed to achieve with 3D holographic displays based on liquid crystal phase modulators, which are limited to a few degrees of visibility.

So far the researchers have only been able to get graphene to display images up to 1 centimetre, but the explain over at The Conversation that this will be easy to scale up. Over in the UK, researchers are also making progress when it comes to creating real-time holograms.

"It is projected that graphene 3D display at tens of centimetre scale, perfect for the wearable displaying devices, will be available within five years. This new generation floating 3D display technology also has potential applications for military devices, entertainment, remote education and medical diagnosis," they write.

The team's results have been published today in Nature Communications, and we're already getting excited about the future of Apple Watches and iPhones with 3D displays - not to mention being able to watch 3D films without squinting through big bulky glasses. Bring it on.

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