A Virtual Sea
Basically, maglev (magnetic levitation) trains work by switching the magnet in front of a train to one that attracts the train seconds before it reaches that point in the track. As soon as the train reaches that magnet, the next magnet is set to attract the train and the first magnet is set to repel the train. Thus the train is like a rabbit running down the track trying to catch the very attractive magnet just beyond its grasp. The consequence of this tease is that the train floats over the track. I was just checking out Sony’s virtual reality site and watching avatars float around in the demo video (I don’t believe the graphics rendering is that smooth in the live version) on levitating surfboards. It made me think that would be a pretty cool idea in the real world. A limited application of this would be single large room carpeted with maglev magnets. The user would stand on a surfboard. The floor of the room would have islands, places where the surfboard would float but not accelerate, sort of rest-stops if you will. The user would navigate between these islands by using the same sort of manipulations of his posture on the surfboard that surfers currently use today. But whereas for today’s surfers these navigational tweaks are partly reactions to the resistance offered by the ocean, in maglev-surfing similar actions by the users would be initiating actions, understood by a gps/gyroscope combination and communicated to the central computer through the most appropriate wireless communication infrastructure. This input data would tell the computer to organize the magnet array just in front of the surfer so that his board takes him where he wants to go.
The next step is moving from a model where we have one maglev floor and one surfer to a model where we have one maglev floor and many surfers. Obviously this raises the problem of interference – a maglev floor responding to the requests of one surfer may inadvertently take another where he does not want to go and potentially cause some serious injury by doing so. We need to get to the point where the floor is capable of having a unique relationship with each surfboard. I think one potential solution would be if we broke down magnetic attraction by frequency. The reason my radio produces the same sound in my home as the radio station intended is because my radio is tuned to the same frequency. Perhaps the solution would be for the floor to attract the surfboard by using an analogous type of unique magnetic frequency. If effective then this would mean that the second surfer would not be attracted to the same magnets as the first. An alternative solution would be to employ a “wake concept.” This would be an array of magnets such that those designed to attract a single surfer to go in a particular direction are perpetually surrounded by magnets that repell others. Thus when the second surfer would come close to interfering with the first surfer, he would experience a resistance, or wake, equivalent to that felt as you try to surf uphill – the board would gradually decelerate. I like the elegance of this second approach. With this second approach we would ask a central computer to turn a maglev floor into a sea, with certain islands of rest. This sea would have lines (routes analogous to shipping lines that would feel like paths of least resistance) from island to island. The sea would react to the behavior of the surfers and adjust the magnets around each to prevent collision. By adjusting the strength of the magnets you could theoretically mirror the behaviour of the actual sea, perhaps you could even do it in real-time. Sounds like fun.