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The professor, researcher and member of the Public University of Navarre’s Smart Cities Institute (ISC) Asier Marzo Pérez has been awarded a European Research Council Starting Grant, which is the most prestigious scientific grant available in the European Union and worth up to €1.5 million for five years. The recipients of these grants can choose the European institution where they wish to carry out their project, and Asier Marzo has chosen the UPNA. In simple terms, the basic idea of ‘InteVol’ consists of being able to take hold of 3D graphics projected in the air and manage them.

zoom El investigador Asier Marzo Pérez

The researcher Asier Marzo Pérez in the library at the Public University of Navarre

A display is a device which shows the user information visually or tactilely. As Asier points out, ‘we now have volumetric displays (which show information within a certain volume) which use levitating particles, plasma voxels and rotating surfaces. But no technology allows people to insert their hands or other objects inside the volume of the device, which means that direct, natural interaction with the virtual objects is not possible.’ In the project ‘InteVol: Interactions with a Reach-through Volumetric Display’, the idea is to have 3D graphics projected in mid-air which you can grasp and work with directly. ‘For example, on our mobile screens we now touch the icons directly and drag them to move them around. Imagine being able to trace the design of your new home in mid-air in front of your friends with your finger, and the lines appear; or a product designed by adding virtual holograms onto existing real parts.’

He reminds us that ‘we have seen the power to project 3D graphics integrated with real world objects in lots of films, like “Blade Runner 2049”, “Iron Man”, “Ghost in the Shell”, “Bones” , “Her” and “Star Wars”, but that’s still not possible, yet.’

Asier Marzo has decided to carry out his project at the Public University of Navarre because he is ‘particularly fond of this university; it’s where I studied and I want to help promote it, both in research and teaching’. He assures that ‘the talent of our students has nothing to envy that of other institutions in the United Kingdom or France’, adding that ‘if we want a better future, we need talent in teaching and research.’

Since the Starting Grant calls began fifteen years ago (2007), Spain has been awarded a total of 10 grants in the field in which Asier works: computer and information science.

Direct interaction and possible applications

The most common displays are on mobile phones, television sets, computers and electronic tablets. ‘In a volumetric display,’ Asier explains. ‘The light comes from every point in space, and the graphics can be seen by several people from different positions without having to wear any kind of device like 3D glasses. These screens allow for correct focus adaptation and a better perception of objects at different depths.’

The ‘InteVol’ project will combine different technologies to create the first volumetric display with direct interaction; that is, a three-dimensional hologram which can be seen by several people and from different angles. They will be able to reach into the display with their hands or other objects to interact with the graphics directly. The technologies involved are acoustic levitation, holography, particle tracking, predictive artificial intelligence and the microfabrication of optophononic particles (which interact with light and sound in a controlled manner).

Another facet of the project is the design of human-machine interaction techniques for the intuitive and efficient management of the 3D objects shown in the display. The field of human-machine interaction combines knowledge of psychology, psychophysics, computer science and electronics since it is necessary not only to understand the machine but also people.

As Asier points out to demonstrate the potential of ‘InteVol’, the project envisages the development of a range of applications. ‘First of all, we’ll create an application to analyse CAD drawings and parts; then one to visualise medical models and plan laparoscopic procedures; and, finally, the most ambitious application will use artificial intelligence to transform people's gestures and words into interactive 3D objects, which should enhance ideation processes involving several people.’

Leader in acoustic levitation

Asier Marzo Pérez is an engineer and holds a PhD in Computer Science from the Public University of Navarre. He is a researcher in the Smart Cities Institute and a member of its management team. He also collaborates with the i2tec electronics and computing student association, and is a STEM mentor at the Pamplona Planetarium. He is a world leader in the use of acoustic levitation to create novel interactive interfaces and has experience in the design of interaction techniques.

He earned the best academic record when he took his Computer Science studies at the UPNA and was awarded a PhD scholarship by the Government of Navarre. His postdoctoral career has included a position in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol (UK), and he has also worked as a software engineer and video game developer. 

A curiosity-driven researcher interested in physics, electronics and programming, during his PhD studies, Asier investigated Video Games for Learning, Augmented Reality and Acoustic Levitation. He has published papers in such prestigious journals as Nature Communications, Physical Review Letters and PNAS. His interests also focus on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), with papers at conferences such as CHI, UIST, Multimedia and ISMAR.

His work has appeared on television on channels like the BBC, Discovery Channel, Nature Videos and Antena3, in whose programme El Hormiguero, he has conducted several demonstrations in the company of Hollywood actors and other celebrities. He has presented his research in Hackaday and at TEDx and multiple Maker events. Several of his papers rank among the top 1% according to Altmetrics and were the most widely read articles in their publications.

He recently founded the research group UpnaLab, in which computer science, physics, electronics and mechanics come together to create innovative interactive devices. One of its main objectives is to make the displays and devices developed in UpnaLab available to everyone. This is reflected in the prizes awarded to its Instructables, hundreds of scientific blog posts and the many Maker events and activities it is involved in.

European Union Starting Grants

The grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) are considered the most prestigious scientific grants in Europe and are designed for researchers from anywhere in the world with ground-breaking ideas which push the frontiers of current knowledge. Depending on how long the applicant has had their PhD, the grants are categorised into Starting Grants (between 2 and 7 years), Consolidator Grants (7 to 12 years) and Advanced Grants (established researchers).

The proposals accepted by the ERC can belong to any field of research and are evaluated on the basis of scientific excellence, of both the research project and the principal investigator, as the sole criterion.
A little over a year ago, the UPNA researcher and member of the Smart Cities Institute Iñigo Liberal Olleta was also awarded a Starting Grant (in the field of Systems and Communications Engineering) for a project on nanophotonics and quantum optics.

In the words of the UPNA Vice-Rector for Research, Francisco Javier Arregui San Martín, ‘that the researcher awarded this ERC grant, Asier Marzo, with all the scientific recognition it entails, has chosen the UPNA to carry out his project is good reason to congratulate the university and Navarrese society. It’s an extraordinary achievement which could lead to the generation of disruptive ideas here in Navarre. For the university, particularly, it means a great stimulus to carry on working on creating a favourable environment for attracting and recruiting talent, and, of course, it’s worth noting the great international visibility and prestige that all this brings the UPNA.’