Nov 21 2008

Computing's Brave New World

Canadian researchers envision computers that can change shape and adjust to the natural environment.

Computers are nifty, but they’re too bulky to be carried around. Even notebook computers require their own carrying case. But imagine if your computer was like a magazine, or a piece of paper that could be tucked into your pockets.

Researchers at the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, are developing prototypes of new “non-planar” flexible computers. Not only will these devices take on forms we've never imagined — like soda cans with browsers that display RSS feeds  — but these computers of the future will respond to direct touch and even change shape to better accommodate data.

For the business user — and especially for road warriors — the new light and flexible devices could prove extremely useful. However, the real target for the technology might be the advertising market.

The concept behind these next-generation computers is “organic user interface,” says associate professor Roel Vertegaal.  “What we’re talking about here is nothing short of a revolution in human-computer interaction,” Vertegaal says.

Vertegaal adds that the use of two-dimensional computers has resulted in narrow-minded thinking. “You are essentially looking at a tiny tunnel into a flat online world, and that causes people to think in a two-dimensional way,” he says. “‘Flatland’ interfaces are incredibly limited compared with natural 3D ones.”

There are three recent advancements in computer technology that have enabled the inventors to steer away from the rigid, rectangular design of current devices. The first, under development in Vertegaal’s lab, is a smart fabric, known as the “tank top” user interface, in which the surface of the fabric allows for two-handed, multifinger touch-sensing.

The second innovation is the flexible display. The new electronic paper uses flexible circuit boards with organic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to create electronic ink (such as that developed by MIT spin-off E Ink). These electrophoretic ink displays are formed by millions of tiny polarized ink capsules: half black and half white. The “paper” is connected to a computer, which sends out negative or positive voltage, causing the ink to turn the pixels on the display to form the image. Once the image is set, the computer can be disconnected and the display can be rolled up like piece of paper and put inside a pocket.

The third development lets computers adjust their shape according to some computational outcome or through interaction with users. The Kinetic Organic Interface (KOI), as it’s called, produces a “claytronic” outcome — a 3D display capable of producing not only pictures, but physical shapes in three dimensions.

“We want to reduce the computer’s stranglehold on cognitive processing by imbedding it and making it work more and more like the natural environment,” Vertegaal says. “It is too much of a technological device now, and we haven’t had the technology to truly integrate a high-resolution display in artifacts that have organic shapes: curved, flexible and textile, like your coffee mug.”

The advertising market could benefit considerably from the new technology. Dynamic and interactive ads could be placed on almost any physical object. Cost is the main obstacle to making this technology a reality in the near future. With an inexpensive solution, the flexible technology has the potential to revolutionize advertising.

Other projects from the Queen’s University Human Media Lab include the world’s first completely foldable paper computer, which lets users move up or down in a document by folding or turning the pages; and an interactive cylindrical display that can play videos on its surface and responds to touch.

Another project developed in the Media Lab is a workbench for gadget design that simulates a computer on ordinary objects of arbitrary shape, such as a sheet of paper or a piece of Styrofoam. When the image is projected onto the surface of the object, it instantly becomes a computer.  It could also download hardware from an online store, resulting in the design of new gadgets at the touch of a button.

It seems hard to imagine, but as Vertegaal says, “that would be a final frontier in the design of computer interfaces that turn the natural world into software, and software into the natural world.”

Iddo Genuth is the editor of the electronic magazine The Future of Things at www.thefutureofthings.com.