by Christopher Lindquist

Attending Your Meeting and Sitting at Home at the Same Time

Sep 15, 20052 mins
Data Center

The attendees for your 1 p.m. meeting have begun to arrive. But they’re not coming through the door. Instead, solid, 3-D models magically self-assemble around the table, looking, moving and talking like impressionistic interpretations of their long-distant human counterparts.

Professors Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry, along with Intel Principal Investigator Jason Campbell, are building “claytronic atoms” or “catoms”—centimeter-diameter pellets embedded with electromagnets that will enable them to connect to and move around other catoms. By controlling potentially billions of catoms as a unit, the researchers foresee creating accurate, active models of 3-D objects. For remote conferencing, attendees could be recorded using a combination of video and motion sensors, with the collected data sent over the Internet to a waiting pile of catoms. The researchers even imagine a time when doctors could control catom-based representations of themselves for remote examinations.

In the interim, less sophisticated catom technology might allow engineers to quickly create 3-D replicas of their projects, with on-screen changes in a computer-aided design program instantly appearing in the catom model. Catoms could also be used as an input device. “Imagine that an architect is planning to remodel part of your house,” Mowry says. “They could show you a physical model, even though they live in a different city. If you aren’t happy with the design, either you or the architect could modify it in real-time. [You] could simply grab the model and move walls, make stairways larger, resize windows [and so on].”

The professors acknowledge that they are many years away from their goal. Their current catom models work only in two dimensions and are approximately 1.75-inch-wide rods, not centimeter-diameter spheres. They also note that designing software to control legions of catoms may be a bigger challenge than engineering the hardware itself. But the researchers believe catoms could dramatically change how we interact with computers. “This technology could potentially make the display-keyboard-mouse interface look as antiquated someday as punch cards look today,” Mowry says.