IBM moves molecules to make world's smallest movie

You’ve heard of Big Data and blockbuster movies. Now IBM is going in a completely opposite direction, creating the world’s smallest movie.

Dubbed “A Boy and His Atom,” the film depicts a boy playing with something resembling a ball and then jumping on a trampoline. Not exactly groundbreaking storytelling, I know. What’s is phenomenal, though, is how the movie was made.

The film is a two-dimensional stop-motion animation movie. But instead of being a drawing on a page or a purely computer-generated image, the boy of the film’s title is comprised of a handful of carbon monoxide molecules sitting on top of a copper plate. And his ball is a single carbon monoxide molecule. To create each frame of the film, the filmmakers — actually a team of four researchers at IBM’s Almaden lab in San Jose — moved individual molecules around on the plate.

“Moving atoms is one thing; you can do that with the wave of your hand. Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” said Andreas Heinrich, a principle investigator in IBM’s research division, in a statement.

As you might expect, this was no ordinary movie shoot. First off, it was far colder than most Hollywood stars would tolerate. Far, far colder. In fact, researchers chilled the copper to near absolute zero — minus 268 degrees Celsius, to be precise — to prevent the molecules from moving around once they had moved them.

The scanning tunneling microscope

The scanning tunneling microscope used to make the movie.

Second, for a movie of this size, you can’t use regular cameras to record the images. Instead, the researchers used a special kind microscope called a scanning tunneling microscope. The device has a long, sharp probe that can essentially “feel” the molecules when it gets fairly close to them. By scanning the plate, it can record where the carbon monoxide molecules are located.

And unlike a typical film, the “camera” used in “A Boy and His Atom” doubled as a kind of pen or even nano-scale crane. To redraw the picture or move objects within it, the researchers used the microscope’s probe to move individual molecules by getting it close enough to them to attract them.

One thing was similar to a typical film shoot, though: it involved a lot of long days. The animated part of the film consists of just 242 frames and is only about a minute long. But the movie took about a month to six weeks to put together, including about two weeks worth of 18 hour days, said Spike Narayan, director of science & technology at IBM Research.

The researchers went “frame by frame, moving several (molecules) from one frame to the next,” Narayan said.

A miniature Starship Enterprise

A miniature Starship Enterprise

Like many movies these days, “A Boy and His Atom” is a “message” movie. In its case, IBM wanted to convey two things: the state of its research into future storage technologies and to inspire kids with a really cool demo of those technologies.

Toward the latter end, IBM is teaming up with Paramount pictures. Using the same techniques that were employed in the movie, the researchers created some “Star Trek” images, including a hand forming the Vulcan “live long and prosper” salute and a miniature Starship Enterprise.

But this wasn’t just an exercise in entertainment. The movie and the images are a way of demonstrating a future storage technology.

The Vulcan salute -- made of atoms

The Vulcan salute — made of atoms

Using essentially the same basic technology — a scanning tunneling microscope with a probe that can sense and move around individual molecules or atoms — IBM researchers have demonstrated that they can represent a single bit of information that can be turned “on” and “off” with just 12 atoms. By comparison, current  storage technologies require about a million atoms to represent a bit, according to IBM. At that smaller scale, IBM researchers estimate they could store every movie ever made on a device the size of a fingernail.

But don’t expect to buy your fingernail drive anytime soon. The microscope used in the film and in the storage research weighs about two tons and is about the size of a room. And there’s the temperature problem: you wouldn’t want to be carrying around anything that’s close to absolute zero.Narayan estimates that drives that employ technologies similar or derived from those used in the movie won’t be available until more than five years into the future. Other IBM researchers are exploring techniques that could be used to commercialize the technology including using self-assembling molecules,” he said.

“We have to come up with a room-temperature version of this,” he said.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (226 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.