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    'Smart' Holograms Are the Cheap Health Monitors of the Future

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Image: RealView Imaging

    Basically anytime someone does something new with a hologram it grabs headlines, especially straight-out-of-sci-fi stuff like this new Star Wars-inspired phone that shows a holographic image of the person at the other end, or the prime minister of Turkey delivering a political speech as a hologram yesterday. That's a lot of fun and all, but one place where holographic research is making a practical impact, life-saving even, is the health care industry.

    Scientists keep discovering new medical uses for the fantastical phenomenon. The latest comes from the University of Cambridge where researchers created a "smart" hologram that can help you monitor your health.

    The portable holographic sensors can detect disease, drugs, hormones, etc. in your blood, breath, saliva, or tears, and change color when they sense something. Then you snap a picture of the colorful hologram with your smartphone to reference it against a color chart for the results. At this point, only certain medical professionals are using the smart holograms, but eventually researchers expect it could be mass marketed—the app will surely follow.

    The holographic biosensors are made with hydrogel, a material similar to what contact lenses are made out of, infused with silver nanoparticles that with a laser pulse form a 3D holographic shape. When the sensor comes across an "indicator"—say, fluctuation of glucose level or hormone imbalance—the hyrdrogel grows or shrinks, which moves the layers of nanoparticles, which changes the color of the hologram. Boom.

    Making holographic biosensors with nanoparticles and lasers, via Advanced Optical Materials 

    It's the same effect as the translucent shimmering of a butterfly's wings, or the holographic images on credit cards and banknotes that change color when you move the object or look at it from a different perspective. Only now the 3D image is "smart" enough to respond to changes going on your body.

    Doctors, you can imagine, are pretty psyched on the idea, which is way easier and cheaper than than current high-tech medical sensing equipment. Each hydrogel sensor takes about one second and cost just 10 cents to make, and can be reused multiple times, so this could also have huge implications for diagnosing and treating disease in developing countries. If it’s made available to patients, it could also cut back on the follow-up doctors visits bloating health care costs.

    "While these sorts of inexpensive, portable tests aren’t meant to replace a doctor, holograms could enable people to easily monitor their own health, and could be useful for early diagnosis, which is critical for so many conditions," study author Ali Yetison said in a news release. The study was published last week in the journal Advanced Optical Materials.

    The new smart hologram comes on the heels of another recently developed holographic tool that gives you a glimpse into the future of medicine. An Israeli company, RealView Imaging, developed a prototype technology that can produce a hologram image of a patient’s heart, floating above their body, beating in real-time. (Or any organ for that matter.) The point is to use the hyper-accurate picture to help guide surgeons as they operate. Doctors can interact with the hovering hologram and see the body part change as they take their scalpel to the tissue.

    The system works by feeding data from x-rays, ultrasounds, and MRI scans into a computer, which displays it as a 3D image, and then light-scattering technology projects it to a fixed point in the air. The company plans to launch the system next year, at which point, it claims, "science fiction has become science fact."