MIT Creates Amazing UI From Levitating Orbs

It’s more than some parlor trick; this demo could be the future of user interface.

Anyone else see The Avengers? Just like in Iron Man 1 and 2, Tony Stark has the coolest interactive 3-D displays. He can pull a digital wire frame out of a set of blueprints or wrap an exoskeleton around his arm. Those moments aren’t just sci-fi fun; they’re full of visionary ideas to explore and manipulate objects in 3-D space. Except for one thing: How would Stark feel all of these objects to move them around? In reality, he’d be touching nothing but air.

Jinha Lee, from the Tangible Media Group of the MIT Media Lab, in collaboration with Rehmi Post and Hiroshi Ishii, has been playing with the idea of manipulating real floating objects in 3-D space to create a truly tactile user interface. His prototype is called the ZeroN, and it will drop your jaw when you see it working for the first (and second and third) time.

It’s essentially a small field in which gravity doesn’t overcome an object. Through the efforts of finely tuned electromagnetism, a user can place a metal ball in midair as easily as they’d place something on a shelf. The ball can be repositioned by hand or by computer, it can be animated on a path, and with the help of software, it can even serve as a virtual camera or light source in a 3-D scene (a sort of 3-D animation suite that you can touch).

"There is something fundamental behind motivations to liberate physical matter from gravity and enable control. The motivation has existed as a shared dream amongst humans for millennia. It is an idea found in mythologies, desired by alchemists, and visualized in science fiction movies," Lee tells Co.Design. "I have aspired to create a space where we can experience a glimpse of this future. A space where materials are free from gravitational constraints and controllable through computing technologies."

Interviewing Lee, I realized he’s one-part scientist, one-part philosopher. He sees mankind’s ongoing battle against gravity as a poetic parallel to our survival: "We set out to travel across the universe and to develop bio-technologies that resist the natural fall of our bodies to earth. At some level, we are all trying to defy gravity," he explains. But at the same time, he concisely explains the design of ZeroN—a design that’s so conceptually simple, you may wonder why no one thought of it first.

Whereas we are captivated by this empty pocket of air, Lee has hidden the real magic just above where there’s a 3-D actuator housing an electromagnet. It’s this arm that provides the perfectly tuned magnetic loop (requiring a circuit built by Rehmi Post from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms), to keep the ball stable. But to drag that ball around lateral space, the actuator actually just repositions itself, moving in tandem with object, and keeping an eye out on its position with 3-D infrared cameras (as you see in the Kinect).

It looks like magic, but it’s largely a mechanical process, powered by a robot in a box holding one of the world’s smartest magnets. But knowing that doesn’t change the ZeroN’s incredible capabilities. "ZeroN can remember how it has been moved. Physical motions of people can be collected in this medium to preserve and play them back indefinitely. When the users move and release the ZeroN, it continues to float and starts to move along the same path. This allows a unique, tangible record of a user’s physical presence and motion which will continue to exist even after the death of the person," Lee explains. "With this functionality, ZeroN can be adopted in many applications: animation prototyping, physics simulation/education, and 3-D design studios, etc. Many of the control that users had to have with mouse and a screen can be tangible and more intuitive."

As of now, the concept has been proven, and Lee is already focusing on scale. Ditching the mechanical actuator for solenoids could enable the ZeroN to hold and reposition several objects at once (and I’m guessing that this move to solid-state electronics would make the idea far more reproducible to boot). But the efforts certainly seem worthwhile. So long as we have hands, we’ll want to touch things. And so long as we have imaginations, we’ll want to grasp that which is just out of our reach. Or as Lee, the scientist-philosopher puts it:

"I think it is important for all of us to reflect on what our essence is, and discuss what kind of world we would like to live in as a human. Asking ‘what if’ questions and prototyping such futures can bring the future a bit closer."

[Hat tip: designboom]

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  • Garrett

    What if - we removed the orb and used the magnets to maneuver surgical instruments based on a body scan and pre-programmed path. For that matter, what if the magnetic tension of the orb could give us a tactile response when used as a controller of said surgical device. 

  • millerblaine

    Ignore the negativity. It's amazing. Even in it's present level of development, you could place tracking dots on the orb to sense rotational values... so even if the object isn't a 1:1 correlation with what it's controlling, the interface could still be used to manipulate objects remotely. FOr instance, even though it's an orb, it could still be used to reference motion as a control interface for  maybe making an adjustment or manipulating a bolt in an otherwise hostile situation/environment  i.e.  bomb robot, work in a nuclear reactor, or toxic waste environment, or in a place that would be to costly to access via human hands. great work.

  • ploko

    The only thing that would be really amazing is a good technology to levitate an object. 
    The one used here is clunky and lame.
     Everything else is easily achievable with existing technologies and would come naturally as soon as we were able to easily and efficiently levitate something. Until then, nothing to look at.

  • VK QA

    If spaceships from other universes did exist they would use this technology to fly I think.  :)

  • Mohhamad Syazwan Zakaria

    owesome..wanshah design also have design one..prototype...this one is owesome.

  • Michael Stafford

    It's exciting to think about the possibilities for this kind of technology!

  • Tohtiengchiah

    I have seen many cool things in my life thus far, but this is by far the coolest i've seen !

  • Sylvain Masse

    Thanks for all those publications Fast Company! Lots of good articles and amazing stuff. From the flowing ketchup to the leviating orbs I'm always captivated!

  • Jakewiechman

    That is really interesting. I wonder if they could eventually design vests of some sort that people could wear, then we could levitate and "fly" in a confined space.

  • Andrés Penella

    You could do a huge version of it, the size of a TV room, so that when you do a certain movement with your hand, the little ball -which would be the remote control- would automatically move towards your hand! I'm just thinking of ways in which this ZeroN could be used... perhaps it can go further than just aiding laziness.

  • Tony Shoemaker

    Very impressive.  But there was very little movement on the vertical axis.  Why did the ball need to be placed at that particular height so consistently?  Perhaps that is version 2.0

  • Fahad

    "Visual fluff"???? FYI, more than half of your computer components were initially thoughts in MIT lab

  • Artur Sapek

    I wonder what it would take to remove the remaining slight wobble? Very exciting project.

  • Rhfactor USA

    A user on Vimeo said:  


    It's a solution in search of a problem.
    Looks cool, but identical results could be achieved much more simply
    using more practical methods.

    I agree with GC. I applaud all innovation exploration, but I disagree with's author, Mark Wilson, that this could be the future of interface design. Honestly, you can go back to SIGGRAPH 20 years ago and see very wild forward thinking interface explorations from Sony's Human Interface Design group using voice, touch, and vision as control elements.