Monday, May 3, 2010

Innovative Interaction Concepts - part 3: Steam

This is the third post in a series describing student presentations that we were invited to see and comment during the II City project meeting.

The third presentation was given by Jens Baert and Marjo Pohjanen, who had worked with an idea involving fog screens. Their project was called Steam, and it combined circular fog screens with a touch floor. This combination produces a virtual environment of a kind, and their example used it for viewing different cities in the world. In the interaction scenario, the user steps inside a circular area, which contains this technology. Printed on the floor around the edge of the area are five arrows, each containing name of a city and the distance, 0 km. Depending on the direction of entry, the user is presented a realistic view of a given city.

The effect is not unlike virtual reality. The user can walk forward to zoom in on details, or walk around to pan the view. While virtual reality as a concept is nothing new, what was really impressive about this presentation was that Jens and Marjo had done some research on the technologies required for implementing this concept, and it turned out all the pieces to the puzzle in fact do exist already. All that is basically needed is to make a fog screen circular, viewable from the "inside". Also, if it can be layered, it will produce a realistic depth effect, which cannot be achieved with simple wall displays.

Similar concepts have been researched already, but mostly in rooms containing wall screens in every direction. The idea of using fog screens adds an additional effect of really being there, as the screen entirely surrounds the user and isn't simply displayed on a wall on every direction. This is what distinguishes this project from usual attempts at virtual reality. Another advantage of this approach is that at least in theory it doesn't require a huge studio-like environment, only some projecting equipment placed on the ceiling. This means that it can actually become accessible to be used in everyday environment, which coincidentally is also the design environment for interactive spaces.

While the described interaction scenario uses only a touch floor for control, we can clearly see the obvious advantages of adding sensor data to detect hand and other body movements. This kind of sensor technology is already on its way to homes, assuming that Microsoft's Project Natal does what it promises. Generally speaking, the idea of using a fog screen to display a user interface, combined with sensor data for tracking hand movements, could be used effectively to produce an effect similar to holographic user interfaces in science fiction movies. Technologies for making holographic user interfaces also do exist already, at least in some form, but it can't hurt to have other means of implementing them.

I find it kind of hard to compare this idea of using fog screens and holographic virtual realities, because in theory they have the same objectives, but in reality, both will most likely look and feel different. However I do think that the same game design ideas are applicable to any virtual reality environments. But either way, if someone goes ahead and succeeds in implementing Steam, Jens and Marjo might have shown us a way to bring this kind of experience outside laboratories, into pretty much any place with a ceiling. And that opens up yet another alley to explore for the II City project, and for generally designing interactive spaces.

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