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.