Employee Q&A: Optical Sciences Assistant Research Professor Pierre-Alexandre Blanche

The reputation of the College of Optical Sciences drew him here from Belgium, and now he's working to make holographic images move at TV speeds.
June 6, 2012
Pierre-Alexandre Blanche sits with his holographic 3-D display setup, which uses a laser system to copy images onto special material that, when viewed through the circular area (to Blanche's right), appear as 3-D holograms. (Photo by Shelley Shelton/Lo Que Pasa)
Pierre-Alexandre Blanche sits with his holographic 3-D display setup, which uses a laser system to copy images onto special material that, when viewed through the circular area (to Blanche's right), appear as 3-D holograms. (Photo by Shelley Shelton/Lo Que Pasa)

Name: Pierre-Alexandre Blanche

Position: Assistant Research Professor, Optical Sciences

Number of years at the UA: 7

Favorite thing about working at the UA: The weather. I'm from Belgium, so it's very different. And I really like having this gorgeous weather every day. I could have stayed in Belgium, but what attracted me here is that and the College of Optical Sciences has a world reputation. So I am very proud to be at this place and be a part of the research that is happening here.

Favorite 3-D movie: "Firefly." It is not a 3-D movie, but they use 3-D. In "Firefly" there is a sequence where they use 3-D for medical diagrams, so you have the patient, and above the patient you have a hologram and you can manipulate it.

You might say Pierre-Alexandre Blanche is a multidimensional guy. He's an assistant research professor in the College of Optical Sciences and was recently elected co-secretary of the Appointed Professionals Advisory Council after representing the council on the Campus Emergency Response Team. He's from Belgium but loves living here in Arizona where the weather is sunny.

His research is focused on the creation of three-dimensional holographic displays that make it appear as if the images a person is watching are hanging in the air. And he's working to make it so the images are not only in 3-D but can be viewed from all sides, so when an object is behind another object, the viewer can simply move around to see the hidden item. And he's working to make the images appear to move, like on TV but in three dimensions.

But that's still a long way off. For now, he spends his time in a lab in Meinel Optical Sciences, where he can take a multidimensional photograph of someone or something in one room using 16 digital cameras and two Sony Kinect cameras arranged in a semicircle, send the information to a computer in the next room and use the computer to write the information onto a special holographic plane. It took the UA 15 years to just create the specialized material from which the plane is made.

"Nobody else has it in the world," Blanche says.

Over time, the UA has explored several applications for the material, but the 3-D applications have attracted the most attention, drawing the likes of The Economist, CNN and Fox News to do stories on the work in the optics lab, in addition to being written about more than once in Nature, a prestigious journal in the science world.

"If we can go video-rate (speed), we will have another major article," he says.

Blanche recently took time to talk to Lo Que Pasa about the practical and entertainment uses of 3-D holograms.

How did you come into this position?
I learned about this place when I was in Belgium researching on the topic that (UA Optical Sciences) professor (Nasser) Peyghambarian was researching, too. And so I was writing articles. They were writing articles. I met them at conferences. When it was time to graduate for my Ph.D. I invited Professor Peyghambarian to be one of my advisers ... and he accepted. So he reviewed my thesis, came to the oral defense and right after asked me to move here. And that was my position in 2000. But the guys back in Belgium were missing me and asked me (to return) for a very, very interesting project I could not refuse in Belgium. So I went back to Belgium for six years for that wonderful project, that led to a company. When the company was formed I asked to come back here because I was missing the weather and the environment. It's very different. 

What does your job entail?
I share my time between going to the lab, reviewing articles, helping graduate students in their Ph.D. phases and writing proposals, because I am a research professor, so I am externally funded. ... It's not a fun part of the job, writing proposals. I much prefer going to the lab and working with the students. That is very rewarding. ... My main project actually is a holographic 3-D display, which is something very visual. We are trying to have a 3-D television, but by the means of holography, so you won't need any glasses to look at it. It's not like 3-D theater or the kind of television you can buy in the store right now. And when you move left and right you see different aspects of the object, which is something you cannot do with other technology right now. So we have something in the lab that does that, but not at video rate, so not at 30 hertz (cycles per second), which is the refresh rate of the television. ... It takes like 30 seconds to write one big hologram, 12 by 12 (inches), which is already impressive because usually holograms aren't that big. They are refreshable so we can write it, erase it, refresh it, so it's basically a really slow TV right now. It's more like a PowerPoint presentation, a slide show. Every 30 seconds we can refresh the image. But that is why I am writing a proposal right now – we have an idea to go faster and faster and to achieve video rate. But we need funds. We need to buy a lot of material. We need to pay salaries.

Have you read "Fahrenheit 451?" That sounds like the television experience the book describes.
Holography and immersion are widely used in the sci-fi novel and also in the movies. ... "Star Trek," and "G.I. Joe." There's "Iron Man 2" with the holographic interface and designing the Iron Man suit in thin air. You see that a lot in sci-fi. Because we are meant to live like that. We interact with our environment, we see in 3-D. We are human. We want something that's not like that flat screen. ... We can still interact, but It will be so much more convenient to have the object floating in thin air, manipulating it and talking to the computer. All that integrated. Gesture recognition. That's also part of the world where we are working at, is capturing the information in 3-D with different setups, a lot of cameras or depth sensors.

How do you capture one image in 3-D?
One of the setups is 16 cameras in an arc ... so you capture a different angle or view. The other setup is based on two Kinect cameras for the Xbox 360. We are using two of them because inside, you have a regular camera and a depth map sensor, so it knows the distance between the object and the camera and the background and the camera. So you have those two (pieces of) information, and then to make a 3-D model of the environment you overlay the depth map and the 2-D image – you have the 3-D information and image information and you combine it and you have the model, and you can rotate the model in every direction. Then you can print it to see it.

What is your opinion of the technology used in movies that are being released in 3-D?
It's very good. It's fantastic. People love it. It’s a huge commercial success, because it brings something more in the experience, but that technology is very old too. It actually predated the photograph. People drew two different images that were slightly different so when you see it with your eye it will pop-out. View-Master (toys), for example ... you move the image fast, you get 3-D theater. What is fantastic for me is seeing that there is commercial potential for 3-D displays, not just a gimmick. It's something people want. So we are working to improve that because people don’t want (to keep 3-D) glasses in the living room. And also you only see one perspective in that (current 3-D television technology). If you move around you cannot see behind something. You always see the same object. For some applications it's really a problem. For example, medical image analysis. You want to see the 3-D, but not just the popping out. You want to be able to rotate the object, and see around the object. Military terrain, for example, too. If you've got a building, you want to be able to see the four faces of the building, not just the front face. ... Seeing around the corner is very important.