3D imager shows how particles interact with energy fields

Quantum mechanics isn’t usually associated with dance, music and light shows. Now, a scientist from Bristol University has developed an interactive 3D imaging system that uses all these things to explain to people how particles interact with energy fields.

The ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’ (dS) system uses 3D video cameras to create images and sounds that represent participants as energy, and show how that energy affects the movement of particles.

As well as being used as the backdrop to specially choreographed dance shows, this science communication tool/interactive art installation is now due to be scaled up for use in a 21m, 360º dome as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

To create the system, Dr David Glowacki from Bristol’s chemistry department transplanted the algorithms he was using to model the interaction of particles with real energy fields into new software that turns 3D video input into a real-time visualisation of participants’ movements.

Although the program requires a very powerful supercomputer to run, Glowacki said the process was relatively straightforward and that the biggest challenge was coming up with the right analogies to explain the science he was demonstrating to the public.

‘When scientists describe how any particle moves, they talk in terms of the energy landscape the particle feels,’ he told The Engineer.

‘You can think of this like the landscape you’d experience if you went walking: particles don’t like to go uphill; they prefer to go downhill. They move fast across wide-open plains and slow through densely packed forests.

‘What we’re doing here is to let people be the energy landscape. So a 3D camera picks up a depth map of the people and interprets that as an energy field.’

Adding an avatar of each person onto a screen full of particles shows how the features of this energy landscape affect the particles’ movement.

‘So they either experience your interpreted energy field as a deep valley they want to be attracted to or as a big mountain that they want to fly away from. As you move around the space, you warp the landscape the particles are feeling and they react to you in real time.’

As well as being a fun way to explain difficult scientific concepts, the dS system could help create so-called dynamic logos in art or advertising that change in response to the crowds in front on them.

Glowacki speculated it could even be used to tell you something about the nature of crowds. ‘At the moment, we probably wouldn’t be able to do that better than someone in the crowd,’ he said. ‘It would be hard to tell what the emotion was, but you could definitely tell if people were getting riled up.’

Another use for the system might be in therapies for some people on the autistic spectrum who might respond better to using simple computer programs than ones with lots of rules.

And it could help physiotherapists who want to use motion-detecting video games to treat patients because dS encourages slow, gentle movements. ‘A lot of video games, for example, on the [Nintendo] Wii, encourage a jerky motion, but if you’re treating someone with arthritis you want more gentle, fluid, yoga-type motions.’

A new dance show entitled Hidden Fields, which makes use of the dS system, will premiere in Bristol on 21 July and appear in the dome at Weymouth Pavillion on 5 August.