Exclusive Inspiration

By Marcin Mazur Rusak

Stepping into the Human Media Lab on the top floor of Jackson Hall is a surreal experience.  Conceptualized by acclaimed designer Karim Rashid the space stands in stark contrast to traditional University facilities.  The offices and carrels have white desk chairs, which look like set pieces from a science fiction movie set, and the windows and tables themselves are incongruous shapes.  The ceiling is wired with kilometres of cables to facilitate sensors and projectors wherever they are needed.

The aesthetic of the space, however, is triumphed by the research and development taking place.  The Human Media Lab is working on a revolution which elevates computer technology to a whole new level.

Think of it this way; gadgets like a Smartphone or a laptop are devices which we manipulate to suit our needs, but what Dr. Roel Vertegaal and his team are working on is abolishing this idea of computers as technology.  Rather, they will function intuitively in the same way as a chair or piece of cutlery, perfectly befitting their purpose.

Vertegaal’s office features a wall of several generations of Apple computers that serve to contrast the work taking place in the lab from the current generation of computers.  The bulky and rigid construction of the old computers is a reminder of the restrictive nature of representing a multidimensional world on a flat surface.  Appropriately, one of the projects the team is working on is flexible computer displays, for example a piece of paper which the user can interact with to surf the web.

Among the other projects under development are organic user interfaces, interactive blobjects, flexible computers, and attentive user interfaces. A computer not restricted by form and space changes its applications and implications for daily human life, allowing it to function as an extension of the physical world as opposed to a representation of it.

One of the areas of research performed at the Human Media Lab is organic user interfaces viz. flexible screens, spherical and cylindrical computers.  What strikes me as particularly potent about the label ‘organic’ is that it is at once contradictory and entirely appropriate.  The word carries a connotation of being natural, but how can a human made object such as a computer be natural?  That is exactly the conundrum that is being confronted by the researchers at the Human Media Lab.  Current technologies such as laptops and phones are rigid and defined, but as we know, nature seldom builds in straight lines.  The computers under development will function as an extension of the body.

Another project underway is termed ‘interactive blobjects’; ordinary objects which are fitted with appropriately shaped displays.  The application of this research could turn something as ordinary as a t-shirt into a mood indicator, or perhaps use a sphere to function as the display of the popular Google Earth application.

Instead of speaking to a flat representation of someone on Skype the interface will enable people to move freely around a room speaking via a cylindrical display of the other person.  The computer will track movement and compensate for change in perspective.

As Vertegaal describes, “The computer will know its shape.”  The implications are immense in a world where computer literacy is fast approaching the same level of importance as the ability to read and write. Vertegaal estimates these products will not be on the commercial market for 10 or 20 years. Although the research is just a glimpse of what is to come. “We are defining the future, and we are doing it right here at Queen’s,” he said.

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