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Pixels float in mid-air with the help of sound waves and force fields

13 October 2016

Researchers from the Universities of Sussex and Bristol have just used sound waves to levitate multiple tiny objects at once. If that wasn’t enough, they even spun them and flipped them around using electric force fields.

The pixels were levitated using a series of miniature ultrasound speakers that create high-pitched and high-intensity sound waves that are inaudible, yet forceful enough to keep the spheres in place.

The pixels are levitated using a series of miniature ultrasound speakers that create high-pitched and high-intensity soundwaves that are inaudible but forceful enough to hold the spheres in place. They can be spun and flipped using electric force fields. (Image via University of Sussex)The pixels are levitated using a series of miniature ultrasound speakers that create high-pitched and high-intensity soundwaves that are inaudible but forceful enough to hold the spheres in place. They can be spun and flipped using electric force fields. (Image via University of Sussex)

The technology, called JOLED, can turn tiny, multi-colored spheres into real-life pixels, which have the potential to create floating displays or bring computer game characters to life as physical objects.

The research opens up new possibilities for mobile and game designers, offering a new way of transforming digital information into physical space.

“We’ve created displays in mid-air that are free-floating, where each pixel in the display can be rotated on the spot to show different colors and images,” said Professor Sriram Subramanian, in the University of Sussex’s School of Engineering and Informatics, is the head of lab behind the research. “This opens up a whole new design space, where computer and mobile displays extend into the 3D space above the screen.”

How it works

A thin coating of titanium dioxide gives the pixels an electrostatic charge, enabling them to be manipulated in mid-air by changes to an electric force field, created by tiny electrodes.

"The most exciting part of our project is that we can now demonstrate that it is possible to have a fully functioning display which is made of a large collection of small objects that are levitating in mid-air,” said Dr. Deepak Sahoo, Research Associate in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Sussex. “JOLED could be like having a floating e-ink display that can also change its shape.”

This is the first time researchers have been able to demonstrate such a fine level of control over these levitating pixels, ultimately moving the technology into futuristic applications, like something you could find in theme parks or galleries.

For example, in the future this kind of display could be placed in a public park to show to users the complex and changing patterns of carbon footprints of different countries or currency fluctuations in different regions of the world. This would allow the public to visualize multi-dimensional data and interact with it.

“Traditionally, we think of pixels as tiny colour-changing squares that are embedded into our screens. JOLED breaks that preconception by showing physical pixels that float in mid-air,” said Asier Marzo, research associate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. “In the future we would like to see complex three-dimensional shapes made of touchable pixels that levitate in front of you.”

In the future, the researchers hope to find ways to make the display multi-colored and with high color depth, as well as look for ways to use the displays to offer media on-demand. For example, a screen appears in front of a user to show the media and then the objects forming the display fall to the ground when the video finishes playing.

To contact the author of this article, email Nicolette.Emmino@ieeeglobalspec.com


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