Sonic Tractor Beam Levitates Plastic Beads

A speaker array used acoustic force fields to hold and move objects in space. Continue reading →

The future, apparently, is going to be loud.

In what is being termed the world's first sonic tractor beam, researchers in Britain have developed an acoustic hologram that can hold, move and manipulate objects in mid-air.

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Tractor beams have been a reliable staple in science fiction movies like "Star Wars," where they're used to reel in uncooperative Rebel blockade runners and pesky Corellian freighters. (For more details, be sure to check out Wookieepedia, the world's best-named wiki fan site.)

The tractor beam developed by the U.K. team uses high-amplitude sound waves and works on a much smaller scale. An array of 64 miniature loudspeakers creates three separate sonic force fields that work together in the space just above the speaker array. In tests, the fields were controlled in such a way as to manipulate tiny polysterene spheres caught between the fields. Hence the tractor beam effect.

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Similar freestanding haptic holograms have been developed previously, but without the precision required to hold an object in place and move it around. Other experiments with acoustic force fields required that the object be completely surrounded by loudspeakers.

"We all know that sound waves can have a physical effect. But here we have managed to control the sound to a degree never previously achieved," says Bruce Drinkwater, researcher with the University of Bristol, in press materials accompanying the publication of the study.

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The sonic tractor beam could have some interesting applications down the line, according to the research team. Sonic production lines could transport delicate objects for assembly, or even be used to grip microsurgical instruments through living tissue. No scalpels!

In case you were wondering, the sonic fields are entirely invisible - the picture above incorporates digital images to suggest the shape of the acoustic fields.

The study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Now and again, the technology world will surprise you. Fifteen years into the new millennium -- amid radical advances in robotics, A.I. and biotech -- one of the year's hottest trends is … hoverboards? Yeah, kinda. The Hendo hoverboard, pictured here, is one of several projects riffing on Marty McFly's futuristic skateboard from "Back to the Future" movies.


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Hendo hoverboard

is entirely legit, as far as it goes: The device uses proprietary magnetic field technology to elevate a no-wheels skateboard about one inch above a copper-plated half-pipe surface.


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Big companies like Lexus are getting into the act. The luxury car maker's


project is a prototype hoverboard that uses special tracks with magnets embedded into the ground.


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A variation on the theme, this one-wheeled contraption from aptly-named

Hoverboard Technologies

uses an electric motor and internal gyroscope to give riders a range of 12 miles at up to 16 mph.


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NeoLev Hoverboard

takes the essential idea and miniatures it, with a playset for kids that features a quarter-inch levitation surface. The company's motto? "Wheels Not Included."


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Invariably described as a "hands-free Segway," the Dutch device known as the Oxboard is one of

several self-balancing scooters

jostling for position in the marketplace.


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French extreme sports outfitter

Zapata Racing

goes in another direction with their water-powered hoverboard, which uses a firehose-type propulsion system attached by hose to launch riders up to 16 feet above the waves.


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Earlier this month, NASA made

an announcement

that suggests hoverboard technology has truly arrived. The space agency is partnering with Arx Pax, maker of the Hendo hoverboard, to develop new kinds of satellite technology. Specifically, NASA wants to use the company's Magnetic Field Architecture system to manipulate tiny satellites in orbit -- without actually touching the delicate spacecraft.


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When a startup outfit called HUVr Tech recently released their

eye-popping demo video

, it looked as if real hoverboard tech had finally arrived. The video shows riders floating on hoverboards several feet above L.A. streets, with testimonials from skateboard ambassador Tony Hawk and "Back to the Future" star Christopher Lloyd. Alas, the video was eventually revealed as a Funny or Die prank.


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