ZeroN system holds a ball wherever you place it, in mid-air


May 9, 2012

The experimental ZeroN system will hold a magnetic ball in mid-air, wherever the user has left it

The experimental ZeroN system will hold a magnetic ball in mid-air, wherever the user has left it

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People who saw the 1984 film 2010: The Year We Make Contact might remember a scene in which Roy Scheider, while describing the orientation of the spaceship that he’s aboard, picks up a pen and places it in mid-air in front of himself. While that effect was actually accomplished using a sticky-sided pen and a very clear plate of glass, the same sort of thing is now actually possible – if you’re in the right place, and positioning the right object. The place is MIT’s Media Lab, and the object is a small plastic-coated spherical magnet called ZeroN. Users can physically place it anywhere within a specified three-dimensional block of “anti-gravity space,” then watch as it stays in place when they let it go. It can also move through the air on its own, and even function as a virtual movie camera.

The ZeroN system was created by Media Lab research assistant Jinha Lee in collaboration with Dr. Rehmi Post of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, and the Media Lab's Prof. Hiroshi Ishii.

Above its open-air anti-gravity space sits an electromagnet, that can be moved vertically and horizontally via a three-axis motor controller. To the side is a stereo infrared motion-tracking system made with two stock Sony PS3 Eyecam cameras, along with a video projector. A second projector and third camera sit beneath a horizontal translucent screen, that is located on a tabletop underneath the anti-gravity space.

As the user reaches into the space with the ZeroN ball in their hand, the motion-tracking system keeps track of where it is. It relays this information to the motor controller, which moves the electromagnet accordingly. When the user lets go, the magnet will be in such a position that its magnetic field holds the ball in place, right where the user left it. If they then reach in and reposition it, the electromagnet will move with it, to keep it hovering in its new location.

Along with simply keeping the ZeroN where it was left, however, the system can also record its movements and then play them back. This means that the ball could be guided through an aerial routine by hand, let go, and then proceed to repeat that routine on its own.

While these may sound like fascinating parlor tricks, the technology has many potential applications. Using the side-mounted projector, for instance, images can be projected onto the surface of the ZeroN. They will not only stay with it through 3D space, but will also rotate with it as it spins in place. This feature could allow it to be labelled, then used to help visualize physics problems – instead of simply thinking the problems through or looking at two-dimensional computer models, physicists could actually reach in and manipulate models of objects such as electrons by hand.

It could also be used in the field of astronomy to act as a rotating model of a planet, orbiting around a static model Sun.

In fact, it could even play the part of the Sun. If an object is placed on the translucent bottom screen, the bottom projector can be instructed to create a digital virtual shadow for that object on the screen. As the ZeroN is moved above the object, the direction and length of its shadow will change, as if the ZeroN is the Sun.

Additionally, the ZeroN can be assigned the role of a movie camera. In this case, after it has been moved over a grouping of physical models placed below it, a 3D fly-over animation of those objects can be generated, “shot” as if the ZeroN were the camera. This could prove particularly useful to architects, who want to record virtual aerial shots of their hand-built models.

Lee goes into more detail of the possibilities, in the video below.

Source: Jinha Lee via Dvice

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Looks like some new type of sport and chess type meets marble madness could be on the way ,,You all remember marble madness ,,,right?


Am I the only one wondering who the first person will be to implement the Phantasm Silver Spheres utilizing this same technique?


Very cool, but except for the manipulating the ball by hand it would appear to be a lot cheaper to use a lasers shining onto a spinning glass disk holographic display.


Great project, but the only bit I can't understand is using the Zeron as a "sun", as it seems to be casting shadows over the object on the stage - where is the light source?


Very inspiring invention or research I should say.

Kirill Belousov

Very cool, but scaling this up to any appreciable size would seem to require huge power/magnetic fields. Think of the interference with the immediate environment this would have--keep your credit/ID cards with magstripe far away!


Awesome demonstration - but I want to know what is the power consumption to levitate that ball? What are the feasible applications for this technology? :)


That movie phantasm, bothered me, I think Hell might have evil souls like that somewhere, I don't want to see it on screen. The military may look into spheres like that for war. Thinking of the movie Battleship , they use spheres on steroids. Personally, I hope there some serious green and happy non violent applications this could be used for.


What great potential. Since the shadow is a projection it could be morphed. Reminds me of the Chinese levitating VW.

Eugene Farley

How about a more liquid like substance and multiple objects- some fun games too, 3d pool, or mech fighters anyone?

Tyler Hall

It's definitely a great demo, but notice that the distance between the ball and the plate above it does vary by very much. It looks like they are keeping it within 2 or 3 centimeters. It's a little misleading that the top plate is so high above the bottom plate, because the power would have to increase dramatically to suspend the ball further down; away from the electromagnet that's supporting it. Thus, the actual volume where the ball can be kept suspended is much smaller than it looks: I'll wager it can't actually go down to anywhere near the bottom plate. Sorry to be a buzz-kill, but it's still very cool.




Is that how David Copperfield can fly?


And what about the possibilities for precisely guiding and delivering cameras with pharmaceuticals or surgical implements to sites within the body affected by disease minimal impact maximum result. Endless ideas. Excellent work guys.


So can millions of tiny, differently colored balls be arranged and moved fast enough to create the ultimate 3D television? I don't think so, since each of those balls would be attracted to each other, wouldn't they? Plasma balls can also be made to hover in one place like this, but they can be manipulated by lasers. By swapping different types of gases to produce differently colored plasma balls, I think that in the near future, our televisions will be 3D Plasma TVs.

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