How Holograms Work

Recreating the Object Beam

The diffraction grating and reflective surfaces inside the hologram recreate the original object beam. This beam is absolutely identical to the original object beam before it was combined with the reference wave. This is what happens when you listen to the radio. Your radio receiver removes the sine wave that carried the amplitude- or frequency-modulated information. The wave of information returns to its original state, before it was combined with the sine wave for transmission.

The beam also travels in the same direction as the original object beam, spreading out as it goes. Since the object was on the other side of the holographic plate, the beam travels toward you. Your eyes focus this light, and your brain interprets it as a three-dimensional image located behind the transparent hologram. This may sound far-fetched, but you encounter this phenomenon every day. Every time you look in a mirror, you see yourself and the surroundings behind you as though they were on the other side of the mirror's surface. But the light rays that make this image aren't on the other side of the mirror -- they're the ones that bounce off of the mirror's surface and reach your eyes. Most holograms also act like color filters, so you see the object as the same color as the laser used in its creation rather than its natural color.

This virtual image comes from the light that hits the interference fringes and spreads out on the way to your eyes. However, light that hits the reverse side of each fringe does the opposite. Instead of moving upward and diverging, it moves downward and converges. It turns into a focused reproduction of the object -- a real image that you can see if you put a screen in its path. The real image is pseudoscopic, or flipped back to front -- it's the opposite of the virtual image that you can see without the aid of a screen. With the right illumination, holograms can display both images at the same time. However, in some cases, whether you see the real or the virtual image depends on what side of the hologram is facing you.

Your brain plays a big role in your perception of both of these images. When your eyes detect the light from the virtual image, your brain interprets it as a beam of light reflected from a real object. Your brain uses multiple cues, including, shadows, the relative positions of different objects, distances and parallax, or differences in angles, to interpret this scene correctly. It uses these same cues to interpret the pseudoscopic real image.

This description applies to transmission holograms made with silver halide emulsion. Next, we'll look at some other types of holograms.