One of the most interesting areas in which computing has been improving lately has been in the realm of interfacing. Concepts like the XBOX Kinect gaming console have not occurred in a vacuum; in fact, they are part of a larger research trend that wants to make projection and scanning the way of the future. After all, why rely on a monitor or a console when you can project images onto any surface and use them like a touchscreen?
That’s the idea behind the OmniTouch technology. Using the same technology from the Kinect gaming system, a research team made of developers from Microsoft and Carnegie-Mellon University revealed back in October that they’ve come up with a system that can turn virtually any surface into a touchscreen. By combining a miniature camera and a portable computer, the user can write documents, check email and carry out their daily computational tasks simply by finding a surface.
Chris Harrison, a postgraduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute in Pittsburgh and a former intern at Microsoft Research and co-inventor of the device, describes the process as follows:
“OmniTouch works by bringing together a miniature projector and an infrared depth camera, similar to the kind used in Microsoft’s Kinect game console, to create a shoulder-worn system designed to interface with mobile devices such as smart phones. Instead of relying on screens, buttons, or keys, the system monitors the user’s environment for any available surfaces and projects an interactive display onto one or more of them.
“OmniTouch does this automatically, using the depth information provided by the camera to build a 3-D model of the environment. The camera acquires depth information about the scene by emitting a patterned beam of infrared light and using the reflections to calculate where surfaces are in the room. This eliminates the need for external calibration markers. The system rebuilds the model dynamically as the user or the surface moves—for example, the position of a hand or the angle or orientation of a book—so the size, shape, and position of these projections match those of the improvised display surfaces.”
Hrvoje Benko, another researcher who developed the device, admits that the current shoulder-mounted model is impractical. However, all the components involved in its creation are off-the-shelf electronics which are being miniaturized all the time. “But it’s not where you mount it that counts,” he says. “The core motivation was to push this idea of turning any available surface into an interactive surface… So I don’t think we’re so far from it being made into a pendant or attached to glasses.”
All of this calls to mind the SixthSense concept invented by Pranav Mistry many years ago. Presenting at TedTalks, he demonstrated how a wearable camera, finger mounted devices, and a portable computer, a person could use just about any surface to interface with their computer and even be able to transfer documents and programs to stationary computers.
While he may have beaten the IBM research team to the punch, this represents a step forward for portable computing and touch-technology since it shows that the results can be duplicated and made commercially viable.
Click on the video below to watch the OmniTouch device in action, and check out Pranav Mistry’s presentation to TedTalks at the bottom. Both enlightening and worthwhile video segments, trust me on that!