IT'S LITERALLY a matter of life and death: soldiers navigating mountain passes and urban alleyways need the fastest and safest route from A to B. Satellite-photo maps, the standard tool for decades, often have a serious drawback: no contour lines, and thus no depth. What looks like a curb could be a 20-foot wall; a seemingly shallow ditch might be impassable—and trap them in a kill zone.
Enter the holographic map. Austin-based Zebra Imaging has developed flexible plastic sheets that morph into three-dimensional holograms when exposed to a halogen or LED flashlight beam, with peaks and buildings literally rising off the page. And unlike paper printouts and GPS units, the holographic maps—of which the military now has 8,000 in Afghanistan and Iraq—can be stomped on, soaked, and stuffed. "They don't get old, they don't break, and you don't have to worry about the battery dying," says Michelle Kalphat, of the Army's research-and-development command.
Zebra starts with three-dimensional images pulled from satellites, then records thousands of perspectives of the same image onto photosensitive film. Each view is printed with lasers as a series of squiggles that reflect light in a specific direction, intensity, and color. Viewed together, layered one atop another, they give the illusion of height and depth. Printed on 3-by-2.5-foot panels, the sheets can be tiled together into 10-by-9-foot maps and etched with latitude and longitude lines and compass directions. Zebra has also begun work on maps for disaster-response teams that can show how different areas will be affected by rising floodwaters, depending on the angle from which the map is viewed.
We know what you're thinking: so when do I get to tote my 3-D map into the backcountry? It'll be a while. The maps start at $1,500 and take three hours to print on Zebra's room-size machine.