Scientists' Magic Table
Like a 'Dining Room in an Earthquake'

By Adam Pasick   FOXNews.com
The dinner tables of the future will set themselves, and desks will get tidy on their own.

Just set the devices to "vibrate."

Dan Reznik/Univ.of California/Berkeley
A magic table, also known as "Universal Planar Manipulator."

Scientists at the University of California-Berkeley have created a magic table, though they prefer "Universal Planar Manipulator." But a wise man named Arthur C. Clarke once said that a "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And the UPM certainly seems to fit the bill.

Place an object like a penny on the UPM, tap a command into the computer, and the penny starts to move across the device's flat surface. What's happening? Four very precise motors think of them as table legs are moving the surface horizontally less than a millimeter at a time, up to 70 times a second.

The movement produces a rapid, controlled vibration that makes the objects atop the UPM move. Think about a dining room in an earthquake, when glasses and plates slowly dance across the table and crash to the floor. Changing the frequency of the vibrations, you can send objects in any pattern on the device.

The vibrations are strong enough to move objects, but are almost imperceptible to the senses.

"It's like when you go to a Sharper Image and put your feet in the foot massager, or you put your hand on a stereo," said Dan Reznik, a graduate student at Berkeley who created the UPM with his advisor John Canny. "The human skin doesn't respond to the table; if you lay your hand down it wouldn't move."

The device, a 16 by 16-inch slab of strong yet light honeycombed aluminum, costs about $5,000. Reznik, speaking from his family's home in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said his group has already brainstormed dozens of practical applications for the technology.

Dan Reznik/Univ.of California/Berkeley
An example of how a parts manipulator can move objects placed atop it.

"You could pretty easily develop a kitchen table that set itself," he said. The system isn't just a table and some motors: it includes a camera that would look down on the forks, knives, plates and glasses to constantly monitor where they are.

"There could be a pressure-sensitive surface so the device could 'feel' the objects," he said. So your desk could rearrange itself, always putting the coffee cup close at hand and keeping the Rolodex next to the phone.

Other possibilities: an intelligent Monopoly board, a chess set with pieces that knock each other around and a host of important but less-sexy uses in manufacturing and other industries that use robotics.

"Usually manipulating means robotic arms," Reznick said. "But this lets you move things with no visible means."

Sounds like magic to us.

Universal Planar Manipulator Homepage

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