ZeroN: An Amazing, Gravity-Defying New Interactive Technology at M.I.T.

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.

You can access the com­plete paper as a PDF. And you can find sim­i­lar videos when you explore our Tech­nol­o­gy sec­tion.

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