Researchers create floating mist computer screens

Floating projected computer screens made of mist could become a feature of future office meetings if new technology from Bristol University takes off. 

A team of researchers has developed a tabletop display from which users can activate personal screens or hologram-like 3D objects that are projected onto a curtain of fog suspended above the table in front of them.

A bank of fans above and below the table draws the fog, which is the same as that produced by conventional smoke machines, down from the ceiling to create a regular transparent surface that doesn’t create a physical barrier.

‘With many tabletop displays, people also have projections on the wall but they’re far away and we wanted to bring them closer,’ said Prof Sriram Subramanian, who led the project with Dr Diego Martinez Plascencia.

‘But if you do that they won’t be able to see the tabletop so we thought about how we could make something you can reach through.’

The system can also project holgram-like 3D objects.

The ‘MisTable’ system also includes a Leap Motion gesture control device that allows users to transfer the projection on the fog in front of them to another user’s “screen” or to the tabletop display below.

The mist comprises water vapour and glycerin but is so fine that users putting their hands through it don’t get wet.

Because the vapour diffuses the projected light differently at different angles, the MisTable has to alter the projection’s brightness in different places to create a consistent image.

It does this using a colorimeter to constantly measure the brightness of the red, green and blue light that comprises the image. The system then creates a “texture template”, a kind of brightness map that tells the projector how to compensate for the irregular diffusion and alter the image in different places.

The fans ensure the fog curtain forms as smooth a screen as possible and also force it to travel downwards. The researchers found that people using the gesture control system tended to place their hands below where the image was projected, meaning it would disturb the flow of mist if it were left to drift naturally upwards.

Users can move the projections around using a Leap Motion gesture control system.

The researchers now hope to use the technology as a way of studying how people look differently at images as they move them around.

‘We want to make the prototype more stable and robust but it also gives you unique ways of providing information to people and we are trying to see if we can better understand human visual perception,’ said Subramanian.

‘We are thinking of setting up some visual experiments where we can move content freely between the mist and the table to see if this prototype can answer those visual perception questions and how their brain works in interpreting images.’