I have just spent two months as a guest researcher at the University of Nottingham's Mixed Reality Laboratory (MRL). Although the British concepts of food and weather may leave something to be desired, the MRL is the place to be if you want to find out about the latest technology for social interaction and cooperation.
When a television crew visits, I am told to "sit in the background and look boffiny""boffin" being an endearingly British term that conjures up a vision of eccentric men in white lab coats who invent strange and wondrous things. I never thought of myself as one of those, but who's to argue with the BBC? Acting the role of a "boffin" made me start to think about when today's interaction-technology buzzwords, such as "mixed reality," "tangible interfaces," and "ambient displays," will find their way out of academic conferences and into the real world.
It can be useful to think about new technologies in the form of "hype curves." A typical curve consists of a stage of boundless optimism, followed by disappointment when the promised effects fail to materialize. Then, if the technology survives, there may come widespread adoption of the conceptoften in unexpected places. Virtual reality is an example of a typical hype curve. It was launched as the solution to pretty much everything in the early '90sthe idea was that we would all spend most of our time inside a computer-created virtual world, where we would interact through headsets, immersive displays, data gloves, or even some kind of vaguely kinky bodysuits (remember those?). It didn't quite happen that way. But after a slump, VR technology has found a strong and appreciative marketin games consoles hooked up to the family TV.
When I ask the grand boffin himself, MRL professor Steve Benford, to place mixed reality on a hype curve that I draw up, he politely refuses. Instead he suggests that a better example might be ubiquitous computing, a concept that is still riding high on the optimism curve. For instance, the European Union envisions a future of "ambient intelligence" where the quality of life is improved by embedded smart electronic devices in peoples' everyday surroundings. The EU promises that such technology will increase productivity as well as personal expressiveness. While this sounds good in theory, the practical, social and environmental implications of making the whole world "intelligent" are certainly far more wide-reaching and complicated than we can ever imagine. Chances are that ubiquitous computing and related ideas are headed for another confidence crash.
Perhaps it is to sidestep this that the MRL seems to pick and choose the best bits from virtual reality, tangible interfaces, ubiquitous computing and many other buzzword technologies. One example is their experimental interfaces to access virtual reality in the outdoors. Rather than a helmet or see-through glasses, MRL's Augurscope takes the form of a little wagon that contains a computer, a GPS system, and a screen at eye-level. The user rolls the wagon to the desired location and pans and tilts it to look at a rendition of the corresponding 3D model. For instance, one might see a model of the Nottingham Castle in the 15th century, overlaid on the castle grounds as they look today. The interesting thing with an interface like the Augurscope is how it makes virtual reality tangible, taking it away from immersive interfaces that tend to exclude the real world completely.
Another MRL area has been mobile games, often developed in collaboration with London-based art collective Blast Theory. Using mobile networking devices with GPS location systems, players and artists can combine their own activities in physical space with a computer model. In Uncle Roy All Around You, some players were walking in the real city, carrying mobile devices, whereas others tracked them in a 3D-model of the city environment. Players had to collaborate, bridging the real and the virtual to find clues to the whereabouts of the elusive Uncle Roy. While commercial on-line games allow players to meet in the virtual world, MRL's performances anchor the activities in reality without abandoning the potential of virtual communication.
Tangible interfaces and ad-hoc mobile networks are good at supporting local interaction, but there is still a lot of untapped potential in distance collaboration. A project that shows how the reach of tangible interfaces can be extended into digital networks is Pushback Tangible Computing. Using a system of intelligent pushpins and networking surfaces, MRL researchers designed a voting game where remote users could vote on pictures pinned on a real, physical pin board. The most popular picture would stay on the board, but all the others would be "ejected" by the pins and fall off. This shows how even in a world of digitally augmented physical objects, it can be valuable to allow for remote access. It also shows that tangible interfaces need a way to "talk back"something that screen-based interfaces are still often better at.
But if there is one way to avoid the hype curve, perhaps it is to not put too much faith in the capabilities of technology in the first place. In contrast to the ambient intelligence approach, which tries to predict and anticipate the user's wishes (usually failing miserably in the process), many of MRL's projects show a refreshing lack of "intelligence." Instead they encourage people to take the technology in their own hands, warts and all. Perhaps being a boffin is not so bad after all.
Lars Erik Holmquist
About the Author:
Lars Erik Holmquist is leader of the Future Institute in Goteborg, Sweden. Before this, he founded and led the PLAY research group from 1997 to 2001. He is interested in innovative interactive technology, including tangible interfaces, informative art, mobile media and autonomous systems. He was general chair of UbiComp 2002, the international conference on ubiquitous computing and is an associate editor of the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.
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