Carnegie Mellon’s smart projector blurs the line between physical and digital desktops

Back in the 1980s, people working on bringing the graphical user interface to PCs adopted the metaphor of the desktop to help people understand how to use their personal computers. Here in 2017, the technology exists to let us expand our computer interfaces out beyond our machines, and onto our real life desks.

That’s the basis for a new project developed by Carnegie Mellon’s ever-interesting Future Interfaces Group (FIG). They’ve created a nifty interface concept that allows your regular work desk to transform into one giant touchscreen — and even compensates for your desk being cluttered. If you thought the iPad Pro was big, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

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“We believe the time has come to re-imagine the light bulb as a 21st century computational appliance, illuminating our days not just with light, but information,” Professor Chris Harrison, head of FIG, told Digital Trends. “Instead of simply emitting light when a switch is flipped, why can we not emit structured light, more akin to a digital projector? Further, wherever the light may fall could become an interactive surface, infused with rich communication, creation and information retrieval capabilities. This is a low-cost, self-contained device that fits existing light fixtures: simply screw in your new ‘info-bulb’ and now your office desk or kitchen counter is an expansive multi-touch surface, able to respond to and augment your daily activities.”

The work debuted this week at the Symposium on Engineering Interactive Computing Systems. There are a few neat elements which make it particularly cool. For one, the projected augmented reality “info-bulb” manages to pull off touch sensing — while also retrofitting into standard flood bulb (BR30 LED) fittings, so it can be installed in most houses. In addition, the surfaces you can use it on don’t have to be flat, although Harrison notes that these are the most comfortable to use for prolonged periods. Finally, it includes some smart accessions to the fact that most desks aren’t simply large empty spaces by rearranging projected interface elements to avoid overlapping with your coffee mug, or even letting them “snap” to objects.

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As can be seen by the video demonstration, there’s still work to be done to areas like touch tracking to make it lower latency and improve accuracy, but this is definitely one heck of an impressive demo.

“We next plan to add a regular, visible light camera to our bulb so that we can better see information in the scene, things like written text, newspaper articles, and objects,” Harrison said. “This will let us digitize information and augment it — like Google searching right on a magazine article, digitizing hand-written shopping list, or popping up photos from your phone.”

A paper describing the work can be read here.