At the scene of an automobile accident, several vehicles are engulfed in a raging inferno. Firefighters and other rescue personnel arrive on scene and receive a report that multiple victims are trapped in the flaming wreckage. Hundreds of gallons of water are quickly expelled to extinguish the blaze. In all likelihood, the vehicles' occupants are dead. Nevertheless, firefighters examine each smoldering heap and find one person with faint vital signs.

Rescuers begin prying the car doors, breaking them free from their chassis. Then, in what seems like a magician's sleight of hand, the firefighters' tools evaporate only to re-form moments later into a stretcher. The victim is loaded onto a spectral, makeshift bed and rushed from the scene to a waiting ambulance.

The captain barks an order -- the drill is over. The firefighters breathe a sigh of relief, and drop the stretcher and its occupant to the ground, where they appear to shatter into a billion tiny pieces.

Welcome to the world of 3-D holograms. But these holograms, officially known as "dynamic physical renderings," are not merely figments of light and color -- they have mass, weight and texture. They move in real time and interact as if they were actual physical objects -- even actual people.

If it seems like science fiction, it is. But for a team of researchers at Intel and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), science fiction becoming science fact may be far closer to happening than anyone imagined.

Taking Shape

Just over three years ago, a couple of computer science/engineer types found themselves at a brainstorming session and wound up with the next big idea.

Todd Mowry and Seth Goldstein, both associate professors of computer science at CMU, hit on an idea that could fundamentally change the world.

Mowry imagined a technology that would let people project what he calls a "telepresence" -- a remote, three-dimensional representation of a human being. The representation would not be merely an image, but a physical duplication or model. The technology would, for example, replace telephone and Web conferencing by creating lifelike replications of the conference participants, all in the same room.

"Seth and I came up with the idea for the project," Mowry recalled. "We were at a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Computing Research Association, where we were supposed to be brainstorming about big, grand challenge-types of ideas.

"Seth had a proposal for using possibly nanotechnology, but not necessarily that, to build little objects like robots that could form into shapes. We sort of realized the best way to build what I had in mind [with telepresence] was through Seth's idea of having things form into physical shapes -- to have something that is physically there, rather than the illusion."

Mowry and Goldstein were convinced they were on to something, and believed the technology existed to build something they called a "claytronics atom" or "catom."

When one very small catom is combined with billions of others -- along with some powerful software -- this amalgam could be programmed to take the physical shape of whatever a user wanted.

CMU provided initial funding to investigate the idea's feasibility. The notion soon attracted others who saw the potential.

Jason Campbell, a senior researcher at Intel Research Pittsburgh, joined Mowry and Goldstein on the project. Additional funding now comes from Intel, the NSF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. As research progressed from idea to prototype, Mowry took a leave of absence from CMU to serve as director of research at Intel Research Pittsburgh.

After three years of work, the team has produced several simulations and larger-scale prototypes of catoms. A catom is an individual unit, much like an organic cell, that

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com