SCIENTISTS at the University of Glasgow are uncovering the secrets of levitation.

They have discovered how to levitate polystyrene beads which can be manipulated into various shapes that float in the air in front of observers.

In one demonstration, researcher Dr Euan Freeman plays ping pong with the floating beads and it may soon be possible to create 3D games rather than play them on screen. Instead of controlling a virtual character on a TV when playing a tennis video game, players could hold a physical racket in their hand and play with a ball of levitating particles whose behaviour is controlled digitally.

The breakthrough could also be a boon in other spheres, such as architecture where a 3D model of a building can be conjured up for people to view from every angle.

Medicine could also benefit as, instead of interacting with a virtual representation of a protein behind a computer screen, scientists could gather around a physical representation of the protein in mid-air, reach into it to fold it in different ways and draw other proteins closer to see, feel and hear how they interact.

The flexible medium of floating particles could also be used by artists to create new forms of digital interactive installations for public spaces. And engineers could walk with their clients around virtual prototypes floating in mid-air with both able to reach into the model and change it as they go.

“It sounds crazy but it’s super cool,” said Stephen Brewster, Professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Glasgow.

“You could use it for interactive applications where you want to create models of data or if you want to create a 3D board game like chess the pieces will pop up next to you and you can move them around as you wish.

“People will be able to make models of buildings more dynamically as they will be able make them from the models they have generated on computers and make them rise up in front of them. They will be able to look around, look down the paths and see where the sun would be, for example.”

Led by Glasgow University, the four-year project is funded by the EU and the aim is to create a new kind of display composed of levitating matter which allows viewers to see, feel, manipulate and hear three-dimensional objects in space.

“The idea behind it is to create a new form of physical display instead of using pixels on screens where everything is 2D,” said Professor Brewster.

At the moment the scientists are using standard polystyrene beads such as the ones found in packing materials and are using ultrasound to create acoustic forces that levitate the particles.

“It’s a way of showing data that allows us to understand it using all our faculties in the way they are designed,” said Professor Brewster. “Humans are designed to see things in 3D in the real world so this will make it easier to understand and manipulate data.

“What’s nice about them is we can all share them, look at them from different angles and move them around as the 3D model sits in front of you in space. We can look at it and manipulate it.

“If you are in a car you might be able to create a physical control where you need it just by putting your hand in front of you. Many dashboards now have touchscreens and don’t have physical buttons but with this you will be able to have a button appear anywhere you want it. You can have them pop up right next to your hand without having to reach.

“It’s just a completely different way of presenting information. Since the 1950s and 1960s we have stuck with screens which have become more densely packed with pixels but are still 2D whereas this gives us 3D objects which is what humans have evolved to see and look around.

“It’s a completely different way of creating and showing things on computers or phones.”