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IBM Researchers Complete Stop-Motion Short by Moving Atoms (Video)

The research behind this project could someday enable every movie ever made to be stored on a mobile device, says an IBM scientist.

A Boy and His Atom Still - H 2013

IBM researchers have created A Boy and His Atom, a fascinating 242-frame stop-motion short that involved moving and precisely placing atoms using a two-ton microscope that operates at -268 degrees Celsius. This simple story of a boy playing with an individual atom is being billed as the world's smallest movie, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

This technique was also tapped to create some new imagery -- including an animated Star Trek emblem and a still of the Starship Enterprise -- which debuts Wednesday on the Star Trek Into Darkness app. “The theme of Star Trek is that space is the final frontier; ours is, atoms are the final frontier when it comes to technology. So we worked together,” explained Andreas Heinrich, a lead researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

The goal of this work is to interest students and the general public in the world of atoms.

The research meanwhile could have a penetrating impact on countless industries. “We want to enable you not to have just one or two movies on portable devices, but maybe every movie ever made," Heinrich said.

Stop motion is a century-old technique that last year generated particular attention when it was used to make three of the five Oscar-nominated animated features: Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. These films take years to plan and are made using a painstaking process that involves moving an object (often a puppet) very slightly and photographing each move, frame by frame.

IBM took this technique to its research facilities. Scientists operated what is called a scanning tunneling microscope, whose robotic features were used to move the atoms and take the images to create the short. Development of this instrument began more than three decades ago at IBM, and its makers won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1986.

“The robot has one ‘hand’ -- a needle,” explained Heinrich. “If there is enough forces between the atom on the tip and the atoms on the surface, then you can use the needle to move the atoms.”

After explaining this concept, Heinrich turned to what went into preproduction. At one point he chuckled, admitting, “I don’t know the proper [production] terms.”

To make the short movie, four of scientists including Heinrich moved an estimated 10,000 atoms over 10 production days. The number of atoms per frame varies from frame to frame. The boy was made up of about 130 atoms; the IBM logo at the conclusion of the short involved more than 200.

Planning began nine months ago when IBM joined forces with a creative team at agency Ogilvy, which created the story. The production also enlisted a firm to consult on the animation, 1stAveMachine, which storyboarded the short.

This was a challenge. “You couldn’t put the atoms exactly where the animation company wanted to put it,” Heinrich explained, using as an analogy an egg carton, where you put the eggs in the slots rather than anywhere on the surface. “The same is true on the atomic scale. … It was a bunch of back and forth between the scientists and the creative folks about what we could do and how does it look.” The finished storyboards were then used by the scientists as a blueprint for the production.

The research behind the short is aimed at data storage and computation. “In the research environment, we can store one bit of information using 12 atoms," Heinrich explained. "Currently the best hard drives use about one million atoms. There is still a long way to go. As big data gets bigger and bigger, you need storage that is smaller and smaller.”

At a time when Hollywood is considering the potential of 4K and even 8K resolution, this research could at some point potentially impact anything from the size of studio libraries for archiving to on-set recording tools for production or even rendering efficiencies for CG and animation.

“Right now there is a trend toward thinking about big data as meaning a storage problem, but the computation problems are also huge,” Heinrich explained. “We are trying to think about new ways to do computation. Computer graphics is one area where there is a huge need for better computation.”