Ever wondered what if materials could levitate in mid-air? What would be the experience of seeing simulations of planetary movements in front of your eyes? Here's a new invention, which is all about solving these queries.

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed what they say a new physical/digital interaction element, called ZeroN, that can be levitated and moved by both computers and humans in a three dimensional space simultaneously. While doing so, computers and humans can make physical interactions with one another in 3D space.

Developed by research assistant Jinha Lee and Rehmi Post of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, ZeroN's movements can be digitally programmed once it is levitated within the simulation space. 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, Lee wrote.

In addition, researchers claimed that the ball-like magnet can also remember how it has been moved, and that's why any physical motions of people can be collected and played back indefinitely. Thus, after the users move and release the ZeroN, it continues to float and starts moving along the same path.

In order to do this, the researchers developed a magnetic control system that can levitate and set the ZeroN in motion in a pre-defined 3D volume, which is combined with an optical tracking and display setup that projects images onto the levitating object.

As the Verge noted, though ZeroN offers different practical applications like the simulations of planetary movements, Lee emphasized on a superior symbolism behind his creation. ZeroN is about liberating materials from the constraints of space and time by blending the physical and digital world, he wrote.

The researchers said in a paper that ZeroN served as a tangible representation of a 3D coordinate of the virtual world through which users could see, feel, and control computation. Their goal is to allow users to take physical components of tabletop tangible interfaces off the surface and place them in the air.

We also envision that ZeroN could be extended for the manipulation of holographic displays. When 3D display technologies mature in the future, levitated objects can be directly coupled with holographic images projected in the air, the researchers wrote.

One could imagine interfaces where discrete objects become like 3D pixels, allowing users to create and manipulate forms with their hands.

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