Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tangible User Interfaces

I've stumbled upon a whole new realm of possibilities for an exciting research area: tangible user interfaces!

A tangible user interface is, according to our friends at Wikipedia, nothing more than "a user interface in which a person interacts with digital information through the physical environment." Such a simple little concept at first glance, but one that I think will eventually become a standard paradigm for human-computer interactions. There are so many applications that simply make more sense when a user interacts with something real, something they understand without a second thought.

For example, many of us have heard of Microsoft Surface by now (if not, check out this video for a really good overview of what it can do). The fact that it can be controlled with such tangible mediums as your own bare hands, everyday store bought items, and other custom tagged objects really opens a whole new world of possibility for interactivity. It's a shame that in the foreseeable future systems like this are likely to remain accessible only in commercial settings (using the cost of $15k as a good starting reason). Even when they are available to home users, a lot of reworking of the software we all know and love to fit this paradigm would be necessary. But the eventual ease of use should be worth it!

Now here's another cool example of a tangible user interface that you probably haven't heard of: Illuminating Clay. The creators of this system wanted to figure out a way to bridge the physical-digital divide that landscape architects face when they model with real clay but compute information about their models on a computer. Their solution? Let the architects continue to use clay, but have the changes made in the physical world be digitized in real time, with the results of various computations projected back onto the clay. This image from the Illuminating Clay website gives you the idea of how this looks:

This is probably the most novel user interface design solution I have ever seen. It should really help demonstrate why I am so excited about the future of tangible user interfaces! Imagine how many applications there must be for this paradigm. (Post some comments with your ideas!)

Now, some of you may be wondering why I would be so interested in user interfaces when my profile claims that I care about computer vision and geometry and such. The truth is that I have had a pretty keen interest in the effective design of user interfaces, but little time to study it further. Pair this interest with the fact that both the examples above, and many others beyond it, require extensive computer vision and geometric computation techniques to bridge that gap between the real world and the computer, and you've got a pretty attractive research area for a girl like me!


Haz said...

I almost considered going into this just because of the potential of working with really cool shit.

Can't afford a 15k table to put linux on? Pfft...{insert any respectable university name} certainly can ;).

Kevix said...

I recently became aware of TUIs when I was reading about a new field called 'physical computing'. I went to a few meetings involved with electronics ( and folks mentioned 'arduino' and this guy at NYU teaching about this stuff.

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