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]