Just inside the entrance of the MIT Museum’s holography exhibit hangs a life-sized hologram of Dennis Gabor, the late inventor of holography, sitting at a desk. The three-dimensional effect of the portrait is so real that you’re tempted to smile and say hello, or even reach forward to shake this Nobel Prize winner’s hand.

Many such dramatic images are on permanent display at the MIT Museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of holograms and even runs its own educational holography laboratory. Partly a scientific endeavor and partly an art form, holography is an odd hybrid whose enthusiasts run the gamut from avant-garde artists to high-tech engineers. MIT occupies a special place within this diverse world, celebrating both the technical and the aesthetic facets of this fascinating medium.

“It’s the intersection of art, science, and technology that makes holography so interesting,” says Prof. Stephen Benton of the Media Lab, a pioneer in the field who invented the type of hologram seen on millions of credit cards. “And MIT is the only place in the world to take this challenge of computer-generated holography really seriously.”

Indeed, the Institute’s enthusiasm for holography goes all the way to the top. MIT President Charles M. Vest, another noted pioneer in the field, says his work in holographic interferometry for mechanical testing made him a lifelong devotee. “Holography combined everything I was interested in – optics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, computer programming, and applied mathematics–I had a ball!” he says of his research years at the University of Michigan.

What makes holograms so fascinating for most people is the startlingly real 3D effect they produce: a pitchfork popping four feet into space or a dog that looks real enough to bark. “If you consider the history of images from the time of the cave man who painted the first picture, then holography is a real milestone,” says holographic artist Betsy Connors, who co-curated the MIT exhibit with Benton. “It was the first time we had true 3D images.”

Like a photograph, a hologram is a recording of light wave patterns on chemically sensitive film or glass. The 3D effect comes from an interference pattern recorded when two laser light beams–one direct from the source and one bouncing off an object–converge at the holographic film.

Benton says the process creates a window with a memory. “When you develop and reilluminate the exposed film, it liberates and reconstructs the wavefronts as though they had been frozen in time,” he says. “Our eyes see an incredibly realistic 3D image of the original object.”

Although 3D images are what people associate most with holography, Benton says holograms have all kinds of high-tech uses, including optical computing, mechanical testing, industrial design, and medical imaging. Benton’s research group at the Media Lab is even working on holographic video, something he says was almost unimaginable ten years ago. “It was beyond the reach of any foreseeable technology,” he says.

Vest agrees, suggesting holography is on the brink of a rebirth. “In many ways, holography has been slow to live up to its promise,” he says. “If motion can be introduced in a natural and realistic way, that will greatly enhance the public’s acceptance of holographic imagery.”

“The philosophy of holography has not yet penetrated the wide culture-it’s still seen as a ‘neat trick’,” says Michael Wenyon, a holographer and artist currently affiliated with MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “But then movies were only a neat trick for the first 20 years or so after they were invented. It was a long time before anyone made serious or commercial films.” Wenyon and his partner Susan Gamble are among a handful of artists that use holography as a serious artistic medium.

“It’s a difficult field for artists because people are slow to accept new artistic media,” says Connors, who teaches a course in creative holography at MIT. Connors says holography is the ideal art form for technical students who may feel intimidated by art in general. “Holography is perfect for MIT students because it combines art with an equation,” she says.

“I like science a lot but I also have an art background, so I’m interested in that too,” says junior Justin Kent, who has just taken Benton’s holography course and hopes to take Connors’ course in the spring. Kent is an enthusiastic young holographer whose fascination with the medium began in a hologram store in a Florida mall near his grandmother’s house.

“Holography is so amazing-it’s like something right out of Star Trek,” he says. “It seems like we shouldn’t be able to possess this technology yet, because it’s not like a trick that’s fooling your eye. It’s actually fooling the light that comes out of the hologram.”

“When I tell people what it’s like to go to MIT, I talk about Benton’s holography class,” says Kent. “It’s such a small field that just by finishing this class, I’ll know more about holography than almost anyone in the world.”