Why you should care
Chris Harrison’s inventions may one day let you surf the web, flip through your iTunes playlist or send a text message on any surface — even your arm.
Everyone from JLaw to your Facebook friends may be getting their Google Glass on, but Chris Harrison thinks the “cyborg” technology falls flat. Wearers control the glasses with hand gestures, but “rarely do we claw at the air for no reason,” said the 29-year-old Carnegie Mellon University engineer. “It’s not very natural at all.” What’s more, the specs only suck people deeper into digital la-la land.
“We want to bring computers to the real world and not just put people in a virtual world,” he said. “Wearing head-mounted displays and just sitting there … sounds like the worst possible future.”
That’s where Harrison’s technology comes in. In his quest to liberate us from our screens and make technology feel more natural, he’s developed a number of devices that transform any surface — from a sofa to your own skin — into an input device.
These inventions solve the human side of the technology equation. As our devices get smaller and faster, our eyes strain to focus on tiny screens, while our fingers fumble with cramped keyboards. The genius behind Harrison’s systems is that they adapt to how we work best — on large surfaces.
We want to bring computers to the real world and not just put people in a virtual world.
The WorldKit, for example, lets you “paint” interactive apps on any surface with a swipe of your hand by pairing the Kinect’s ceiling-mounted, depth-sensing camera with a projector. The camera interprets hand gestures and tells the projector to beam certain interfaces onto a desired surface. Trace a circle on the arm of a sofa and WorldKit projects an image of a dial. Swiping the dial to turn it adjusts the TV volume.
Harrison and his colleague, Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. student Robert Xiao, demonstrate other applications in the video below. Besides dials and switches, WorldKit also lets you paint message boards, calendars, indicator lights and more. For now, the projector and camera are on the bulky side, but they say the system could eventually fit inside a lightbulb.
How about turning your body into a touchscreen? A similar system called Skinput beams keyboards and other interfaces onto your skin from a tiny projector embedded in an armband. Each tap against your skin generates a unique pattern of sound waves. A sensor that’s also installed in the armband reads these patterns to determine which part of the display to activate, allowing you to text, play games or surf the web — on your arm.
WorldKit lets you “paint” interactive apps on any surface with a swipe of your hand.
Meanwhile, the Touché senses not only touch but also complex hand and body positions. A sensor registers changes in an object’s electrical properties caused by motions on or near it and translates them into specific computer commands. A person leaning forward on a Touché-equipped sofa would cause a TV to turn on, while a dog jumping on the sofa might trigger a noise, prompting it to jump off.
It may take five to 10 years for these inventions to hit store shelves, so until then, prepare yourself for technology designed to make you more human. ”Technology can be abused,” Harrison said, ”but with good design, it can make us smarter, longer living, more social and more loving.” Now that’s a technology takeover we can all get behind.