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Vibrator Tech Moves Earth
by Leander Kahney

3:00 a.m. Oct. 4, 2000 PDT

   

A graduate student has invented a vibrating work surface that may shortly lead to rooms that effortlessly rearrange the furniture and desks that can tidy themselves.

Dan Reznik, a Brazilian computer science Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, has developed a table with a shaking top that moves objects as if by magic - the only finger lifted is the one on the mouse controlling what objects are moved where.


    
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Reznik's Universal Planar Manipulator may lead to a pub counter that automatically moves drinks down the bar or a conference table that serves cups of coffee to everyone seated around it.

Reznik's work is part of a larger field called distributed manipulation. It dispenses with complex machinery like robot arms, and instead employs thousands of simple actuators like magnets or air nozzles.

With obvious industrial applications, distributed manipulation has jelled as a discipline only in the last couple of years, Reznik said.

Scientists at Rice University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington and other institutions are working on both micro- and macro-systems for moving very large objects and very tiny ones.

The U.S. Postal Service, for example, is backing efforts to build giant roller systems capable of moving heavy packages from one end of a warehouse to another, Reznik said.

At the other end of the scale, researchers have carpeted the surface of silicon chips with microscopic cilia for manipulating micro-electronic components.

Reznik's UPM is a little more utilitarian.

For example, the technology could be used for tables that automatically lay places for dinner. Just throw down all the plates, knives, forks and glasses and everything will be put in the right place.

The technology is so precise that it can move individual objects in any direction while leaving other objects exactly as they were.

"You could have this anal-retentive table," Reznik said. "If anyone moves the salt shaker, the table would move it back to its position. It would always be perfectly set."

Right now, the prototype can sort and rearrange individual objects like poker chips, coins and bottles. But Reznik said one day it may be used to move heavy objects like furniture or large industrial parts.

The UPM is like a tray that shakes very rapidly. Made out of the honeycombed material used for aircraft flooring, it is vibrated by a series of motors similar to those in sub woofers.

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