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A photophoretic-trap volumetric display


Free-space volumetric displays, or displays that create luminous image points in space, are the technology that most closely resembles the three-dimensional displays of popular fiction1. Such displays are capable of producing images in ‘thin air’ that are visible from almost any direction and are not subject to clipping. Clipping restricts the utility of all three-dimensional displays that modulate light at a two-dimensional surface with an edge boundary; these include holographic displays, nanophotonic arrays, plasmonic displays, lenticular or lenslet displays and all technologies in which the light scattering surface and the image point are physically separate. Here we present a free-space volumetric display based on photophoretic optical trapping2 that produces full-colour graphics in free space with ten-micrometre image points using persistence of vision. This display works by first isolating a cellulose particle in a photophoretic trap created by spherical and astigmatic aberrations. The trap and particle are then scanned through a display volume while being illuminated with red, green and blue light. The result is a three-dimensional image in free space with a large colour gamut, fine detail and low apparent speckle. This platform, named the Optical Trap Display, is capable of producing image geometries that are currently unobtainable with holographic and light-field technologies, such as long-throw projections, tall sandtables and ‘wrap-around’ displays1.

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Figure 1: The Optical Trap Display.
Figure 2: 3D-printed light images produced by levitated optomechanics.
Figure 3: Examples of the colour and resolution quality of the images.


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We thank L. Baxter from Brigham Young University, Chemical Engineering Department, for use of his equipment, as well as G. Nielson, V. M. Bove Jr and P.-A. Blanche for discussions. We are grateful to S. Hilton for help with 3D printing. We acknowledge the Blender Foundation for content (Fig. 3c; adapted from under a Creative Commons license, and software for 3D image conversion. We also acknowledge those who supplied source material for the holograms and volumetric images shown. B. Wilcox and Brigham Young University Communications provided footage of the Y logo in Fig. 1 and Supplementary Video 1. The butterfly image used to create the volumetric image and holograms shown in Fig. 2a and Extended Data Fig. 1a, b was sourced from Rvector, Shutterstock. The volumetric image in Fig. 3d was generated from NASA photograph number AC75-0027. The image of the arm shown in Fig. 2h and illustrated in Extended Data Fig. 1e was created using a model from clayguy, CGTrader. The model of the sitting human figure that is 3D-printed in Fig. 2g and illustrated in Extended Data Fig. 1d was sourced from fletch55, 3D Warehouse.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



D.E.S. and J.P. formed the original concept. D.E.S. directed the research. E.N. developed the colour system and performed the analysis. K.S., K.C., B.H. and M.P. performed early trapping experiments and identified suitable particles. K.S., K.C., B.H., M.P. and J.V.W. developed the first monochrome system and the predecessor to the colour system. K.C. and J.R. developed the fast version of the monochrome system. J.R. developed the automatic pickup mechanism. S.G. and K.Q. developed the SLM trapping system. J.G. calculated the particle acceleration, performed the phase-mask analysis and conducted the literature review. K.C. and B.H. created the trapping chambers and performed aerosol experiments. W.R. created the hardware and software to migrate the system to full 3D images. M.L. created the raster-to-vector conversion algorithms. A.M. developed the driving architecture for full resolution images.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to D. E. Smalley.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Reviewer Information Nature thanks B. G. Blundell and C. Wang for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Limitations of holography.

a, Holographic butterfly above hologram surface (butterfly image adapted from Rvector, Shutterstock). b, The holographic image is clipped at the display aperture when viewed from the side. c, Long-throw projector geometry. Light projected from a holographic display aperture will not bend to reach the viewer in this geometry. d, e, The same is true for the tall sandtable geometry (d) and the wrap-around geometry (e). In e, a physical object (arm) obstructs the rays from aperture 2.

Extended Data Figure 2 Solid-state astigmatic aberration trap.

a, An LCOS pattern used to encode an aberration optical trap. b, The display trapping function can be changed to that of a solid-state display by encoding the phase pattern of the holographic trap on an SLM as shown.

Related audio

Supplementary information

Persistence of vision example

This video shows a photophoretic image of the Brigham Young University, ‘Y’ logo drawn at persistence of vision rates (>10 Hz) in freespace. The illumination color of the logo is slowly varied. (MP4 10147 kb)

Particle motion

In this video high-acceleration movements, jumps, rasters, and random walks are shown. (MP4 11488 kb)

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Smalley, D., Nygaard, E., Squire, K. et al. A photophoretic-trap volumetric display. Nature 553, 486–490 (2018).

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