Anyone who knows anything about ventriloquism will tell you (spoiler alert!) there’s no sound coming from the dummy’s mouth. The art of deception and misdirection creates the illusion. The same is true (another spoiler alert!) of holograms – any sound seeming to come from a hologram is actually emanating from a speaker at or near that location. To the dismay of followers of Edgar Bergen and Jeff Dunham and to the joy of those secret programs wanting to make really scary Armageddon-ish holograms, the U.S. military is close to perfecting the ability to create voices at a distance out of thin air. Did you hear that? What? Where?
Edgar who? He was Candace Bergen’s dad and the greatest ventriloquist ever on radio. Really!
The new weapon is called the Laser-Induced Plasma Effect (LIPE) and has been under development for a few years in the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program. That’s the group chartered to make “weapons, devices, and munitions that are explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property in the target area or environment.” This is more commonly referred to as the space between shout and shoot. In this case, noise is the weapon and ‘incapacitate’ means anything from eardrum-pounding blasts to deceptive whispers.
It's that second option that’s coming close to being heard, according to the website Defense One, and at distances that will make it an effective and potentially fright-inducing weapon. Back in 2013, Defense One reported on development of the loud end of the LIPE, which could trick enemy troops into thinking fighter jets are attacking when there’s nothing in the air. Since then, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program has been working to turn down the volume to create a different kind of scare tactic.
How does LIPE work? It starts with a laser – a femtosecond laser which shoots high-intensity ultrashort pulses for 10−15 seconds at a spot in space where it turns the air into a ball of plasma or electrified gas. Next, the plasma ball is hit with a beam from a nanolaser (ultra-tiny lasers) at just the right wavelength to manipulate the plasma until it emits a sound that resembles a human voice. Imagine enemy soldiers suddenly getting orders to retreat from their phones … or from inside their helmets … or from a prayer book in their pocket.
Defense One interviewed David Law, head of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program technology division, who points out that the same technology can be used for creating sound, light and heat – which would give the military one laser weapon to replace many older ones. The range of the weapon is based on the size of the mirror in the laser. A five-inch mirror has a one km (.6 mile) range while an 8-inch mirror can reach five km (3.1 miles). He says they’re already creating plasma balls 30 km (18.6 miles) away. Now the challenge is to fine-tune the wavelength to create a passable voice and perhaps make entire fake sentences (“Your boot is untied!”)
Is the whispering laser gun the non-lethal weapon of the future for the military and police? Is it the innovation that will make holograms more realistic?
We’ll know the answer if Jeff Dunham retires.