Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction.

I just got back from TEI 15 at Stanford University.

The Association for Computer Machinery’s conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction addresses issues of human-computer interaction, design, interactive art, user experience, tools and technologies. A strong focus of the conference is how computing can bridge atoms and bits into cohesive interactive systems.

It seemed like a perfect fit for my field of research, so – despite being quite possibly the only representative from a Design rather than Computer Science or Research program – I was determined to attend.

The majority of the conference consisted of paper presentations from Masters and PhD students from around the world.

Here are some of the projects that stood out, and felt most relevant to me:

MagnID: Tracking Multiple Magnetic Tokens

While many smartphones have magnetometers (see this other interesting demo I came across recently) they are only capable of tracking one nearby magnet. This project overcomes the problem by creating a set of tokens in which a motor rotates a magnet at different speeds. This creates "sinusoidal magnetic fields" that can be isolated, also giving the sensor access to the distances of each token.

It's an interesting concept, but the tokens each need battery power and a functioning motor, making it a little impractical. The precision of the measurements also leaves much to be desired. For the kinds of application they demonstrate however, a novel – and sophisticated – approach to connecting the virtual to the physical.

SPATA: Spatio-Tangible Tools for Fabrication-Aware Design

Eerily similar to this concept from Unfold, though far more realized and technically developed, this project seeks to connect the virtual to the physical in the domain of 3D design and digital fabrication.

The physical tools used when designing new objects for digital fabrication are mature, yet disconnected from their virtual accompaniments. SPATA is the digital adaptation of two spatial measurement tools, that explores their closer integration into virtual design environments. We adapt two of the traditional measurement tools: calipers and protractors. Both tools can measure, transfer, and present size and angle. Their close integration into different design environments makes tasks more fluid and convenient.

It's a compelling and well-executed vision, that seems to demonstrate real utility. I was intrigued that they used a motorized fader, given my exploration of the device as a means to manage both analogue input and output.

THAW: Hybrid Interactions with Phones on Computer Screens

An imaginative investigation of congruence between devices from MIT's Tangible Media Group, with some illuminating application ideas.

THAW is a novel interaction system that allows a collocated large display and small handheld devices to seamlessly work together. The smartphone acts both as a physical interface and as an additional graphics layer for near-surface interaction on a computer screen. Our system enables accurate position tracking of a smartphone placed on or over any screen by displaying a 2D color pattern that is captured using the smartphone’s back-facing camera. The proposed technique can be implemented on existing devices without the need for additional hardware.

The method for detecting the location of the phone on the screen is really smart. A color gradient is overlaid on the screen, and the phone's camera detects the precise colors it's seeing to determine its position. The overlay shrinks to a small circle by the camera as it gains confidence, for the most part the human eye will miss the split second the gradient actually fills the entire screen for its first detection attempt.

Obviously this demonstration is using custom software on both the laptop and phone, but it's impressive that no additional hardware was required.

I also took part in an interesting workshop, focused on abstracting expressive movements and re-imagining them as mechanics in low fidelity foam core prototypes. We began by building an interesting 'Master and Slave' device in which six potentiometers were followed by six equivalently positioned servo motors. Following that we built a drawer with foam core, and attempted to make expressive movements with its (servo-controlled) opening and closing motion.

An enlightening few days. Oh, and I briefly got to meet the inimitable Hiroshi Ishii.