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SCIENCE: I Want My 3-D TV

Warning: the following article about Dr. Skip Garner’s holographic television contains unsafe levels of science. Proceed with caution.
By Adam McGill |

INTELLIGENCE INSIDE: Skip Garner poses with the innards of his 3-D TV contraption. Engineering assistant Jeremy Hunt looks on.

Dr. Harold “Skip” Garner has a hole —more like a slit—in the elbow of the left sleeve of his shirt. He doesn’t notice it as he tells a visitor about the multitude of projects going on at the Garner Lab at UT Southwestern. He leans back at one point, the sleeve catches the armrest, and when he leans forward, the sleeve tears almost in two. The banded-collar shirt was one of the nicer ones in his wardrobe, he says.

“Oh, well,” Garner says calmly. “My girlfriend will probably be happy. She never was a fan of this shirt.”

Garner’s girlfriend has been “remodeling” him since they started dating about a year and a half ago. The clothes are but one arena of improvement, which extends to their home in Flower Mound. Pre-girlfriend: no cable or Internet access. Since girlfriend: TV channels galore and DSL.

Garner points out another victim of the remodeling: his favorite couch. It sits exiled in his office, a large blue hunk of furniture with hidden compartments for cup holders, kick-out panels for reclining, and a phone pad for a built-in cell phone. What’s most impressive about it, though, is the fact that Garner was able to get the thing through his door. Good thing he’s a physicist.

Actually, Garner is a plasma physicist. He’s also a nuclear engineer. And a biochemist. He’s worked with nuclear reactors and helped develop paint for the Stealth Bomber. He’s the cofounder of the Genome Science and Technology Center at UT Southwestern, where he’s the P. O’B Montgomery Distinguished Chair in Developmental Biology. He’s a first-degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, used to jog barefoot, and loves fishing. And, in addition to being all of those things, he’s an inventor who just may change the way we watch TV.

GARNER, 51, GREW UP IN A SMALL LOUISIANA TOWN, where his dad was a diesel mechanic for barges and his mom was an artist. About a dozen of his mom’s watercolors hang in his office, paintings of microchips and diatoms and strands of DNA—whatever Garner happened to be working on at the time.

Garner remembers his dad coming home from work one day with a barge problem when he was about 12 years old. No matter what cleaning products the men on the docks used, they couldn’t get a putrid smell out of the cargo containers. Using a chemistry set his grandmother had given him, Garner concocted sulfur dioxide, and his dad confirmed that that was the culprit. Garner then set out to find a solvent.

“I tried all sorts of stuff,” he says, shaking his head slightly. Turns out, diesel fuel did the trick. “I collaborated with my dad,” he says. “So that was pretty cool.”

But lab coats and chemistry sets and Bunsen burners are a long way away from launching the biggest revolution in television since the laugh track. Or are they? Garner’s chair is partly endowed by the McDermotts, as in Texas Instruments’ McDermotts. As such, Garner has made a number of contacts at TI and got a tour of the facility about 10 years ago. At the end of that tour, Garner sat in a private movie theater where he could witness one of TI’s latest gadgets: the Digital Micromirror Device.

Dr. Larry Hornbeck invented the DMD in 1987, an optical semiconductor about the size of a tiny Post-It Note. When sitting in a display case on Garner’s desk, the chip looks dull and gray. In actuality, the chip has about 800,000 teeny-tiny mirrors (16 by 16 microns), each one individually able to tilt and reflect light toward or away from a projector. The speed and accuracy of this tilting, this Digital Light Processing, has brought high-definition TV into millions of living rooms across the world.

Garner knew such a device could have other uses, and he and his team have set out to find them. With DLP technology, they’ve grown DNA, about 200,000 different strands on a square inch of microscope slide. They hope to refine light therapy, where the DLP could help kill melanomas without giving surrounding skin cells a serious case of sunburn. They’ve been working on tissue engineering. And, when he realized a DMD could handle coherent light just as well as willy-nilly UV rays, Garner and his team got to work on 3-D TV, bringing moving holograms to life, without those funny-looking glasses.

A little bit of science: holograms are recordings of the way light hits an object. All pictures do that, but what makes holograms fancy is that they also record, very precisely, the distance between every point in the picture and the camera film, which is where the third dimension comes in. A source of synchronized light (laser beam) is split into two beams; one, the “object beam,” hits the thing that’s being hologrammed and is reflected off toward the film. Meanwhile, the second “reference beam” directly illuminates the film. These two beams recombine at the film, recording the difference in distance that each beam has traveled. Say you hit a tennis ball directly to a friend (the reference beam) and you hit a second ball toward a wall (the object beam), and it bounces off in a way that your friend can also catch it. If you can freeze-frame, Matrix-style, as both balls approach your friend, you could measure the difference in the direction from which both balls came and the difference in the time each ball took to get there, you can tell something about the shape of the wall and how far away the wall is. Think of lightwaves instead of tennis balls, and you’ve got yourself a 3-D holographic image.

But holograms are static images. To make a movie, you’d need to look at a slew of holographic images in quick succession, like an old-time flip-book, which is hard to do when dealing with holographic film. If the images were digital, then you’d be on to something. That’s where the DMD device comes in. With its hundreds of thousands of mirrors, the DMD and a light processor can create data-rich holograms at about 30 frames per second, the same speed as regular television. Garner took the chocolate of holography and the peanut butter of the DMD and came up with a delicious idea for groundbreaking entertainment: 3-D TV.

But there’s still the problem of projection. To cast a 3-D movie, you need something with depth, more depth than a flat screen. Garner’s team’s first prototype was a tank filled with Agarose gel—a less tasty version of Jell-O. Garner’s team is now working on a system of projection using LCD panels. Remember the flip-book analogy? The LCD panels mimic that action, except the projector does the flipping for you. Each pane—there are about 24 of them in the current model—is clear, and firing a laser through them doesn’t do much good. (There’s nothing to interrupt the laser’s path.) But when charged with electricity, a panel turns opaque. Stagger the opacity of panels quickly as the laser hits, and you’ve got yourself a projection screen with depth. Use DLP to fire that laser, and you’ve got yourself a moving hologram.

Garner is not an overly serious person, but the immediate applications he foresees for 3-D TV are, namely, defense and medicine. Fighter pilots could use the holographic projection in a heads-up display to pinpoint their position and orientation as they relate to a target. Doctors could use the imaging for more sophisticated CAT scans and sonograms and the like. But we’re still several years—and millions of dollars—away from 3-D TVs in living rooms, where discerning audiences want crystalline clarity and fluid motion.

“The technology is too mature to get a basic grant to build a holographic TV, but it’s too immature to be ready to be made into a real product,” Garner says. “We’re in that really inconvenient stage.”

Garner thinks a consumer-level 3-D TV is about 10 or 15 years away, which is a shame. Because the only thing Garner’s big blue couch needs is a good 3-D TV in front of it.

Photo: Dan Sellers