Science fiction has a way of becoming science fact. Jules Verne wrote about elaborate submarines and space travel a century ago. Cartoon character George Jetson ate instant food long before the dawn of microwave ovens. Now a scene from the movie Star Wars is close to being reality.

In the film, R2D2 the robot projected a holographic message from Princess Leia to Luke Skywalker. Today researchers are trying to perfect a system to project holographic images of full-size components and vehicles, which could some day be tied to CAD/CAE systems to execute design changes and produce a holographic image of the new design instantaneously.

A device like that has the potential to speed vehicle design time and reduce cost by eliminating clay models and many prototypes. Long-range visionaries see 3-D representations of vehicles used in dealerships where a customer could look at different colors and other optional features on a vehicle before placing an order.

"Our goal is to have a 22- by 12-ft. (6.7-by 3.7-m) display by the end of the decade," says Jim Fischbach, president and CEO of American Propylaea Corp., which has been developing a holographic device called LifeVision for six years. "That would embrace most any life-size car."

Mr. Fischbach says development has been slow but steady on a system that often has to wait for technology to catch up to the application. Another hurdle is development costs. Individual investors have thus far plunked down "more than a couple million dollars" for the project.

Starting in 1989 with a blurry 2x2-in. (5x5-cm) monochrome image, American Propylaea has advanced LifeVision to the point where it can project a full-color 4/10-scale image of a vehicle through a 50-in. (127-cm) diagonal holographic element (see accompanying story).

Mr. Fischbach and company recently hooked the system to a powerful Silicon Graphics Onyx computer, which improved the hologram's visual detail. By the end of this month, American Propylaea expects to switch to a high-definition video projector for even greater image clarity. At year's end Mr. Fischbach expects to go to a 84-in. (213-cm) diagonal holographic element that will produce a 3/8-scale vehicle.

"Two things have happened recently that improved the quality of the hologram: the addition of true color and full motion," explains Mr. Fischbach. "When you add high-definition projection, you'll have a magical image. Put all those together, and holography will explode."

Understanding the potential of such a breaththrough, the auto industry is keeping its eye on Mr. Fischbach and American Propylaea. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. are particularly interested.

Jack Telnack, Ford's worldwide design chief, got on the hologram bandwagon early. He clearly is impressed with the progress of the technology and its potential to improve the design process.

"You want to reach out and touch this thing," Mr. Telnak says excitedly. "The possibilities are endless. While costly now, eventually holograms will reduce the cost and time of design. That's what we're striving for."

Other Ford departments also are on the leading edge of hologram application. George Bell, chief engineer for the '95 Taurus/Sable, says his team used a form of laser holography with CAD/CAE to find potentially noisy floorpan panels. But the glamorous uses of holography and other variations of 3-D displays still are in the design arena.

Mike Holmes, manager of computer systems in Chrysler Corp.'s Product Design Office, agrees that American Propylaea's nologram technology "shows promise," but isn't convinced that it's the only way to go.

"There are other 3-D display devices in development," Mr. Holmes explains. "We're looking for the best 3-D display devices we can find." One is called Crystal Eyes, which works with a computer screen and special eyeglasses. Another, which reportedly doesn't require glasses, will come from California-based Infinity Co. An Infinity spokesperson says the company isn't ready to discuss the product yet.

"Once we have this device we'll have the ultimate in rapid prototypes," says Mr. Holmes. "We'll see increased communication, which shortens the design process. It also has the potential to eliminate some prototype models. The minute we get there, it opens up a lot of different avenues that will allow us to much better utilize our computer equipment."

GM, while not totally writing off holography, has a system of its own on which it's hanging its future design hopes. Randall B. Smith, a staff research scientist at GM's Research & Developoment Center, says there are still GM people interested in holograms, but he says the images have limitations. One example is that holograms only can be seen from fixed viewpoints and the viewer must look toward the holographic element. "But what if I want to walk up to it and look inside?" he asks.

Well, Mr. Smith and his associates at the GM R&D Center answered that question themselves. If you want to look inside a 3-D image you develop a system that lets you do just that.

GM is using a system called Virtual-Eyes, a virtual reality room in which engineers are totally immersed in a computer-generated vehicle. This advanced 3-D system uses the "CAVE" (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) approach originated by the University of Illinois-Chicago to permit people to sit inside a car made only of light.

Special stereo glasses allow the viewer to see virtual prototypes of parts and assemblies. Currently, full evaluations of interiors and exteriors occur only after the design is "mocked up" -- a time-consuming and expensive process.

GM's CAVE starts with the same equipment as American Propylaea, but that's where the similarity ends. The CAVE uses three screens rather than one, stereo glasses and a head tracker, a magnetic device that senses the direction you're looking and the distance from the display. The computer then draws pictures to match your perspective at four frames a second.

"It's not that fast right now when drawing pictures," says Mr. Smith. "Right now we're using it as a design evaluation device, not as a design manipulator." He adds that as computer technology advances, more real-time uses for VirtualEyes will be possible.

The advantage the GM system has over all others is that it is already in operation. "This is not an R&D pipedream, it's being used right now to design '97 and '98 models," Mr. Smith asserts.

Engineers aren't the only automotive people looking forward to the dawn of usable and affordable 3-D displays. Marketing folks believe more accurate and less-expensive consumer pre-production model evaluation can be done using these images.

"We find the computer-generated graphics are not representative of the real car," says Dick Taylor of Chrysler's consumer research department. "Consumers tend to be a little more positive of product on screen than in the flesh. An alternative is the hologram."

GM's Mr. Smith says an interactive 3-D display device for consumers would need a more powerful or faster computer and that technology is a few years away. "Right now it's a complete tradeoff -- speed versus complexity," he says.

Those who see the potential of 3-D CAD/CAE computer output are convinced that when the big breakthrough comes, the auto industry will change with it. So the development work continues. "It's an evolution not a revolution," Mr. Holmes says, "and it'll never be done."

The word hologram is taken from the Greek words meaning "whole message." The technical aspects of how these three-dimensional messages are conveyed could fill this magazine. Here's the abridged version:

* A component or vehicle design is on the screen of a workstation.

* That workstation feeds 8 to 10 other computers, which process 8 to 10 different -- yet overlapping -- viewpoints of the design.

* Data from the 8 to 10 computers is fed via cable to a video projector.

* The video projector is aimed at a holographic element.

* The holographic element is a plasma mirror that looks like a plain sheet of glass to the naked eye but is treated to allow images projected through it to have three dimensions and appear to float in space. There's no need for special glasses.

* The size of the element is directly proportional to the size of the 3-D image projected.

* Still images are projected at 30 frames a second, which is what the eye sees as "real time."

* Instant engineering changes can be viewed at 1 to 4 frames per second.

* Developers of hologram and other 3-D display devices are waiting for computer technology to catch up with their ideas.

As General Motors Corp. designers look at variations of their work on the company's CAVE system, its Electronic Data Systems subsidiary is giving other business leaders a chance to see how a wide array of virtual reality (VR) technology can assist them.

EDS invites interested parties to its new Detroit Virtual Reality Center -- located near the corporation's headquarters building in midtown Detroit -- to view demonstrations of its technology and that of almost 40 other partners, including high-tech hardware and software manufacturers and universities.

What visitors see is a multi-dimensional presentation on a 24- by 6-ft. (7- by 1.8-m) screen showing how medical experts, geologists, architects and manufacturers, as well as automotive engineers, can use VR to refine procedures and improve efficiencies.

Bob Volers, the center's director, says the medical world, for example, could benefit from VR by enhancing current magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) to create 3-D views of the body.

Factory designers can use the facility to virtually enter and walk through a plant even before it's built so they can gauge sight lines and distances, enabling them to position and reposition equipment for optimum effect without actually having to move heavy objects.

Automotive applications, he adds, include prototypeless design and engineering such as preliminary air-flow and crash tests that do not require actual vehicles or expensive wind tunnels and crash sleds.

Companies showcasing their technology at the EDS site may sell their products alone or in partnership with one another, but this is the first time all have joined together to offer potential buyers one-stop shopping. Among the partners in this endeavor are Bose, Computer Design Inc., EDS-Unigraphics, Hewlett Packard, Integraph, Silicon Graphics, Sony and Wavefront. The University of Michigan and Michigan State University also are involved in the center.

Participants say the EDS center is the first commercial VR facility in the world.