A day of playing around with multi-touch and RoomWare

Last Sat­ur­day I attend­ed a RoomWare work­shop. The peo­ple of Can­Touch were there too, and brought one of their pro­to­type mul­ti-touch tables. The aim for the day was to come up with appli­ca­tions of RoomWare (open source soft­ware that can sense pres­ence of peo­ple in spaces) and mul­ti-touch. I attend­ed pri­mar­i­ly because it was a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend a day mess­ing around with a table.

Atten­dance was mul­ti­fac­eted, so while pro­gram­mers were putting togeth­er a proof-of-con­cept, design­ers (such as Alexan­der Zeh, James Burke and I) came up with con­cepts for new inter­ac­tions. The proof-of-con­cept was up and run­ning at the end of then day: The table could sense who was in the room and dis­play his or her Flickr pho­tos, which you could then move around, scale, rotate, etc. in the typ­i­cal mul­ti-touch fash­ion.

The con­cepts design­ers came up with main­ly focused on pulling in Last.fm data (again using RoomWare’s sens­ing capa­bil­i­ties) and dis­play­ing it for group-based explo­ration. Here’s a sto­ry­board I quick­ly whipped up of one such appli­ca­tion:

RoomWare + CanTouch + Last.fm

The sto­ry­board shows how you can add your­self from a list of peo­ple present in the room. Your top artists flock around you. When more peo­ple are added, lines are drawn between you. The thick­ness of the line rep­re­sents how sim­i­lar your tastes are, accord­ing to Last.fm’s taste-o-meter. Also, shared top artists flock in such a way as to be clos­est to all relat­ed peo­ple. Final­ly, artists can be act­ed on to lis­ten to music.

When I was sketch­ing this, it became appar­ent that ori­en­ta­tion of ele­ments should fol­low very dif­fer­ent rules from reg­u­lar screens. I chose to sketch things so that they all point out­wards, with the mid­dle of the table as the ori­en­ta­tion point.

By spend­ing a day immersed in mul­ti-touch stuff, some inter­est­ing design chal­lenges became appar­ent:

  • With table­top sur­faces, stuff is clos­er or fur­ther away phys­i­cal­ly. Prox­im­i­ty of ele­ments can be unin­ten­tion­al­ly inter­pret­ed as say­ing some­thing about aspects such as impor­tance, rel­e­vance, etc. Design­ers need to be even more aware of place­ment than before, plus con­ven­tions from ver­ti­cal­ly ori­ent­ed screens no longer apply. Top-of-screen becomes fur­thest away and there­fore least promi­nent in stead of most impor­tant.
  • With group-based inter­ac­tions, it becomes tricky to deter­mine who to address and where to address him or her. Some­times the sys­tem should address the group as a whole. When 5 peo­ple are stand­ing around a table, text-based inter­faces become prob­lem­at­ic since what is leg­i­ble from one end of the table is unin­tel­li­gi­ble from the oth­er. New con­ven­tions need to be devel­oped for this as well. Alexan­der and I phi­los­o­phized about plac­ing text along cir­cles and ani­mat­ing them so that they cir­cu­late around the table, for instance.
  • Besides these, many oth­er inter­face chal­lenges present them­selves. One cru­cial piece of infor­ma­tion for solv­ing many of these is know­ing where peo­ple are locat­ed around the table. This issue can be approached from dif­fer­ent angles. By incor­po­rat­ing sen­sors in the table, detec­tion may be auto­mat­ed and inter­faces could me made to adapt auto­mat­i­cal­ly. This is the tech­no-cen­tric angle. I am not con­vinced this is the way to go, because it dimin­ish­es people’s con­trol over the expe­ri­ence. I would pre­fer to make the inter­face itself adjustable in nat­ur­al ways, so that peo­ple can mold the rep­re­sen­ta­tion to suit their con­text. With sit­u­at­ed tech­nolo­gies like this, auto-mag­i­cal adap­ta­tion is an “AI-hard” prob­lem, and the price of fail­ure is a severe­ly degrad­ed user expe­ri­ence from which peo­ple can­not recov­er because the sys­tem won’t let them.

All in all the work­shop was a won­der­ful day of tin­ker­ing with like-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als from rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent back­grounds. As a design­er, I think this is one of the best way be involved with open source projects. On a day like this, tech­nol­o­gists can be exposed to new inter­ac­tion con­cepts while they are hack­ing away. At the same time design­ers get that rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to play around with tech­nol­o­gy as it is shaped. Quick-and-dirty sketch­es like the ones Alexan­der and I came up with are def­i­nite­ly the way to com­mu­ni­cate ideas. The goal is to sug­gest, not to describe, after all. Tech­nol­o­gists should feel free to elab­o­rate and build on what design­ers come up with and vice-ver­sa. I am curi­ous to see which parts of what we came up with will find their way into future RoomWare projects.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

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