Levitation without the illusion: MIT’s ZeroN project defies gravity


Is this the mouse pad of the future? Researchers at MIT have developed a prototype environment, named ZeroN, which can suspend a ball in mid-air and use it to navigate both a virtual and physical environment in a three dimensional space.

Using active electromagnets, the environment can be programmed to manipulate the path of the ball or allow it be guided by hand. An intriguing feature is that ZeroN can “remember” and play back the movement of the ball, whether programmed or hand-guided, within the three-dimensional space.

The ZeroN can also act as a simulator, enabling the ball to interact with tangible objects placed within the environment. For example, as the demonstration in the video shows, models of “planets” within the environment with programmed orbital rings, guide the ball as it revolves around the model. Adding a second model immediately changes the orbit of the ball, as it begins to revolve around two “planets.”

zeron two planets

The simulator uses infrared stereo cameras, taken from conventional webcams. The cameras sense the position of the ball and objects within the three dimensional space and plots three dimensional models of the newly introduced objects in the environment. A second instrument for measurement called the Hall Effect Sensor, “measures the position of the ZeroN every few milliseconds, and the electromagnet repels or attracts the ZeroN based on their distance,” Lee explains in the video.

zeron diagram

The cameras can build a virtual model of physical objects position in the ZeroN, which can then allow users to navigate the virtual environment with respect to the ball. If you get creative, the ZeroN’s applicability can range from architectural, gaming or even medical purposes, like virtually navigating the chest cavity of a patient.

ZeroN however was built with the purpose of redefining what it means to interact with physical objects. “Our body and minds have developed great capacities for understand and manipulating physical environments. The long-term vision is to embed computation and physical materials that can directly interact with us. In this way, we seek to redefine the relationships humans have with materials, space and digital information,” Lee said.

The prototype is still a proof of concept and has its minor kinks to work out. When you watch the video, you’ll notice that the ball’s movement is undoubtedly unstable. The electromagnet, in conjunction with the Hall sensor, which constantly calculates how much repulsion or attraction is necessary to maintain the ball’s approximate position in the three dimensional space, may need to be programmed to for a gentler touch. But the video is evidence enough that Lee’s concept works. In fact Lee has begun to build the ZeroN’s second iteration. According to Fast Company, Lee is scaling the prototype to be capable of manipulating multiple objects within the ZeroN environment.

You can watch the video below: