One cool table setting

October 18, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — If you think today’s 3-D technology in movies and TV shows is cool, wait until you see your first hologram table. Funded by DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm, for battle planning, the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display produces a 360°, 3-D image (no glasses needed). Zebra Imaging, the company that is developing the technology, says it’ll take at least another three years before this table is set for business applications like surgical planning or even gaming, but that won’t stop us from thinking about the possibilities now. Here’s how it works.

Virtual models: Detailed 3-D renderings are created from standard design software or Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) devices that sweep real-world buildings and objects with invisible lasers.

Prepping the hologram: A proprietary software plug-in loaded onto a standard computer converts the 3-D image into a hologram-friendly format. During this stage, users can zoom in or out, rotate, or change the lighting.

The display: Processors and graphics-processing units inside the display crunch the data and send it through a light modulator and a set of lenses to create an image made up of millions of “hogels,” the 3-D equivalent of pixels.

This article is from the October 17, 2011 issue of Fortune.