The team believes that the device allows users to manipulate objects more quickly, with less lag time, than existing technologies.

The device, called Captive, offers six degrees of freedom (6DoF) for users – with applications ranging from video gaming to medical diagnostics to design tools.

Captive makes use of only three components: a simple cube, the webcam already found on most smartphones and laptops, and custom software.

The cube is plastic, with differently coloured balls at each corner. It resembles a Tinkertoy, but is made using a 3D printer. When users manipulate the cube, the image is captured by the webcam. Video recognition software tracks the movement of the cube in three dimensions by tracking how each of the colored balls moves in relation to the others.

“The primary advantage of Captive is that it is efficient,” says Zeyuan Chen, lead author of a paper on the work. “There are a number of tools on the market that can be used to manipulate 3D virtual objects, but Captive allows users to perform these tasks much more quickly.”

To test Captive’s efficiency, researchers performed a suite of standard experiments designed to determine how quickly users can complete a series of tasks.

The researchers found, for example, that Captive allowed users to rotate objects in three dimensions almost twice as fast as what is possible with competing technologies.

“Basically, there’s no latency; no detectable lag time between what the user is doing and what they see on screen,” Chen says.

Captive is also inexpensive compared to other 6DoF input devices.

“There are no electronic components in the system that aren’t already on your smartphone, tablet or laptop and 3D printing the cube is not costly,” Chen says. “That really leaves only the cost of our software.”

Earlier this year HTC revealed a virtual reality sensor that enables users of its Vive VR system to bring any physical object into the virtual world.