In Stephen Spielberg’s film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial there is a memorable scene in which a group of children ask a stranded visitor from outer space where he is from, and he tries to communicate by using an unseen force to lift a group of balls into mid-air and move them around to simulate a solar system. Now a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has tapped into the physics of magnetic levitation to create something similar: a computer-controlled system that allows users to manipulate a metal sphere floating in space.
“I think there is something fundamental behind motivations to liberate physical matter from gravity and enable control,” writes Jinha Lee on his Web site. “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. I have aspired to create a space where we can experience a glimpse of this future.”
Lee’s device is part of the M.I.T. Tangible Media Group’s larger project of giving physical form to digital information. The group strives to bring together the separate worlds of bits and atoms in a Tangible User Interface, or TUI, to allow people to use their naturally evolved physical dexterity to visualize and manipulate computation. To help achieve this, Lee developed a programmable interface element he calls “ZeroN.” He describes it in the abstract of a paper published last October with collaborators Rehmi Post and Hiroshi Ishii:
ZeroN serves as a tangible representation of a 3D coordinate of the virtual world through which users can see, feel, and control computation. To acomplish this we developed a magnetic control system that can levitate and actuate a permanent magnet in a pre-defined 3D volume. This is combined with an optical tracking and display system that projects images on the levitating object. We present applications that explore this new interaction modality. Users are invited to place or move the ZeroN object just as they can place objects on surfaces. For example, users can place the sun above physical objects to cast digital shadows, or place a planet that will start revolving based on simulated physical conditions.