A Year of Isolation and Exploration

On March 12, 2020, I took one final look around the office — a sunny, open space in the heart of Chelsea, New York — before departing for the day. It was not even one o’clock, but the fear of spreading COVID-19 triggered a wave of reaction from businesses, which immediately instituted work from home policies to flatten the curve. I’m not sure if anyone at the time knew that would be our last day in the office. Our CEO sent us an email that day, concluding, “We’ll assess over the next week as the situation progresses and determine when it will be sensible to go back to the office.” It’s been over a year since we’ve all been working from home, and while we’ve lamented the loss of a devoted space where we can come together and concentrate on a shared vision, I’ve found this year has also allowed me to do things that weren’t possible before. With Funnel Leasing embracing a Work from Anywhere policy, I expect these opportunities to become a more permanent fixture of life, as I continue to strive toward the vision of a renter-centric leasing experience. In this blog post, I’d like to discuss one of the things I’ve been able to explore during this pandemic year.

As a data scientist at Funnel, I enjoy building conversational agents using software and algorithms, but sometimes it’s fun to roll up your sleeves and build something that can demonstrate a scientific principle in a striking way. For a few months I’d skimmed catalogs from science vendors looking for an interesting project, but because I lived in a pretty small New York City apartment, my options were limited. Housing a bunch of bulky scientific equipment in our apartment was, well, a non-starter for my wife. The pandemic changed all that. Like many, I took the opportunity to purchase a house, and because of Funnel’s Work from Anywhere policy, I purchased a lake house in Vermont, far from New York where space is at a premium.

About as good as it gets

In addition to relaxing on the lake, I finally got the chance to indulge in a science project that caught my eye. Of course it involved a laser, because what says science fun during a pandemic more than a laser? Specifically, I wanted to use it to create holograms. We’re all familiar with holograms, whether it’s futuristic ones portrayed in science fiction, or the more mundane ones seen on the backs of credit cards, but holography is also a serious branch of science. Its inventor, Dennis Gabor, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in 1971, and it has several practical applications today, including high-capacity data storage.

Not quite the holograms I was looking to produce

But for hobbyists, holograms are basically photographs, but instead of only capturing 2D images, holograms store the full 3D information of the objects they record. This is accomplished by using two beams of light, instead of one as with regular photography. When light shining off the object interacts with light from a reference beam, it produces a pattern on the film that contains information not just about the object’s brightness, but also its depth. When the recorded hologram is later illuminated by a laser, it can reconstruct the full 3D image of the object.

How holography works (https://i-fiberoptics.com/pdf/45-733a_manual-revc.pdf)

That’s the idea anyway, but achieving it required the extra space and time that the pandemic and Work from Anywhere made possible. The instructions I followed required building a big sandbox to place the laser on and shoot the scene, then supporting it on rubber tubes. This prevents small vibrations from tampering with hologram creation. Even a truck passing by is enough to cause some wobbling on an ordinary table that would destroy a hologram! Clearly, an NYC apartment wouldn’t cut it, but a shed on a cul-de-sac road in rural Vermont might. So after months of unsuccessfully pestering my wife to store a big sandbox in a bedroom closet, I finally had my setup.

A sandbox, but not the fun kind for kids

To test the box’s stability, I split the laser beam with a beam splitter, sent the two beams down different paths, then combined them later and displayed the result on a screen. This common setup has a lot of different applications (a very big version is used to detect ripples in space from black holes merging), but for holography, it’s used to check whether there are small disturbances in the laser beam.

Interferometer to access sandbox stability

Here’s the pattern produced by the two beams interacting as they hit the screen. If the light bounces around even slightly, it’ll show up as wiggling in these light and dark fringes. Luckily for me, these fringes didn’t bounce around, so that meant I was ready to make holograms!

Interference between two red light beams

But before that, I illuminated an already exposed and developed hologram that came with my kit. Before you shine it with laser light, it just looks like a clear sheet of plastic, but on illumination, an image of many dice emerges as if out of nowhere. As you move the hologram around, striking the light at different angles, different areas of the dice are revealed.

Holographic dice

There are many different types of holograms that can be produced, but they basically involve shining laser light on the film and object for a given exposure time, then developing the film with chemicals in a dark room environment, similar to regular photography. Here’s an example setup. The film is held in place between glass plates and situated between the object and the laser.

Setup for a reflection hologram

The first hologram I recorded was of a single die. After developing the film, I shone the laser light back on it to display the image. Because my laser wasn’t very high powered and the die was small, only a small section of the film was actually developed, so I really had to ticker with the viewing angle and strain to find the image, but eventually the die shone through, as if in a red smoky haze.

Holographic die

I can’t say it was very good, but it was a start! To record a bigger object, I tried a small 3D-printed dog. Here are the results. Because of the power limitations of the laser, as well as the particular hologram I produced, only one side of the dog is illuminated, but you can still see part of its face poking through.

Holographic dog

That’s all! In the future, I’d like to use a higher-power laser to try to shoot more complicated scenes. Additionally, a different version of holography might also operate in nature at the lowest levels. This is what inspired my original interest in laser holography and is something I’d like to continue exploring in the future. Thank you to Funnel and the Work from Anywhere policy for providing an environment in which individual interests can be explored, while we all work toward the vision of the easy, renter-centric leasing experience.

I’m a data scientist passionate about building AI-driven software for industry