Picking Up Bacteria Is Now As Easy As Playing a Video Game

Using your hands, a Microsoft Kinect, and some laser tweezers, you can push around nanoscale objects

The user, at right, uses his hands to manipulate small silicon balls, seen on the left. Photo: Dundee Physics

Hackers love Microsoft’s Kinect. The three-dimensional motion tracking system was designed to let you do silly things like play dancing video games or fake-hit a tennis ball, but coders and engineers the world over have co-opted the clever piece of hardware for all sorts of uses, from digitizing real-world objects to tricking out your garbage can.

In one of the most impressive uses to date, a team lead by David McGloin has rigged a Kinect to be a portal into the subatomic realm. The system the team has designed lets users directly control nanoscale laser tweezers with their hands. Laser tweezers, or optical tweezers, says Stanford, “have been used to trap dielectric spheres, viruses, bacteria, living cells, organelles, small metal particles, and even strands of DNA.”

Here’s how they work:

According to Technology Review, McGloin’s system “allows user to “pick up” and “push” particles they see on a computer screen using hand, arm, and body movements. The system shows users the field of view in which the tweezers operate. A wave of the hand creates a trapping region, which holds particles. This can then be picked up and moved with further arms movements.”

So far, the scientists have managed to jerkily push around some teeny tiny silicon spheres. It’s a bit bumpy.

The system’s bumps. though, should probably be overlooked for the time being given that they’re using a video game peripheral to control and manipulate things that can’t even be seen without a high-powered microscope.

More from Smithsonian.com:
Isaac Newton’s Death Mask: Now Available in Digital 3D
How Hackers Made Kinect a Game Changer