If two companies get their way, pretty soon you’ll walk through virtual advertisements in the mall or view television programs the same way Luke Skywalker watched R2D2’s playback of Princess Leia’s distress message in the first Star Wars movie.

The images would float off your TV screen and into thin air, allowing you to interact with virtual characters right in the middle of your living room.

While this futuristic scenario was once the stuff of movies like Star Wars and Minority Report, it isn’t so far-fetched today.

At least two companies, IO2 Technology of Hermosa Beach, California, and FogScreen in Seinäjoki Technology Center, Finland, have working prototypes for systems that broadcast two-dimensional images into thin air.

IO2 Technology’s Heliodisplay, the size of a breadbox, projects images onto a cloud of water vapor diffused into the air rather than on a screen. Observers can control the virtual characters as they would on a computer screen, but instead of using a mouse, they use their hands. No special glove is needed, said Chad Dyner, founder and CEO of the company.

While Dyner has no immediate plans to release the product, he is confident he will find mass producers for the Heliodisplay. Following news reports about the prototype on Wednesday, he was inundated with requests for more information, he said.

“In a conference setting, everyone is looking at the wall rather than at each other,” Dwyer said. “In this case, you can have the image positioned centrally, and people can discuss freely about the image or other information, be pointing at it, talking to one another and seeing one another eye to eye.”

FogScreen also sees possible entertainment and business applications for its walk-through FogScreen. The FogScreen made a splash at the Siggraph Emerging Technologies conference in August, where it was used to display a walk-through virtual image of the Mona Lisa. A museum in Tampere, Finland, is now exhibiting the same image. Also, a popular Finnish mime uses the FogScreen in a performance.

Several companies have reserved the FogScreen at $110,000 apiece, said FogScreen CEO Mike Herpio. The company has not said when the FogScreen will be mass-produced.

Both FogScreen and IO2 Technology say they have patents pending on the technology.

“My vision is in, say, 2015, when we switch on the TV, the screen will be in the middle of our living rooms,” Herpio said. “I think it’s going to be a mainstream technology in about 10 years.”

Well, maybe. For now, the images are not as sharp as they would appear on a computer monitor, said Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media, a company that conducts market research on video-projection equipment.

“There have been attempts at other ways to create this in the past,” Chinnock said. “But there are trade-offs with it. The viewing angle is small … there’s distortion.”

The steep price tag for the units may also turn off potential customers — even the most ardent Star Wars fans. Robert Beasley, dean of students at a Florida high school and a staff writer for the Star Wars fan site JediNet.com, said he would use the technology to play computer games as long as it displayed quality images and was affordable.

“Although the concept has been around, there hasn’t always necessarily been the technology to back it up and make it cost-effective for companies to market it to consumers,” Beasley said. “I also believe that IO2 Technology will encounter a ‘class gap,’ if you will, which will arise from lack of funds from normal everyday users to purchase such items.”

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