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Researchers can manipulate 3D objects using just a webcam and this little cube

Prototype 3D controller systems could be used for everything from medical diagnostics to gaming

The Captive 3D-printed cube

Whether it’s a student trying to figure out the human heart or an architect dreaming up plans for a new building, being able to study an object in three dimensions can be incredibly helpful. But a lot of the software we use for 3D modeling can be slow or unintuitive to use. That’s why researchers from North Carolina State University have come up with a simpler solution, and all you need to use it is a webcam and a 3D-printed cube.

The system is called Captive, and works like this: on each corner of the 3D-printed wireframe cube is a colored sphere. These spheres are recognized using computer vision software developed by the team. This maps where the cube is moving in space using an ordinary webcam, and turns these movements into inputs for controlling 3D-modeling software.

This sort of control system isn’t new in itself, but it usually requires expensive hardware. Captive, by comparison, is quick and cheap — all you need to do is 3D-print the cube and install the software. It allows six degrees of freedom while manipulating an object, and its creators say it’s almost twice as fast as existing commercial systems.

“Basically, there’s no latency; no detectable lag time between what the user is doing and what they see on screen,” said Zeyuan Chen, lead author of a paper describing Captive, in a press release. “There are a number of tools on the market that can be used to manipulate 3-D virtual objects, but Captive allows users to perform these tasks much more quickly.”

Captive’s creators say their system could be used for a large number of applications, from video games and education, to design tools and medical diagnostics. However, there’s no word on when the software will become commercially available.