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Canadian lab is 'shaping' the future of computing

June 9, 2008

by Mark Ollig

Some exciting developments are taking place in a Canadian laboratory.

The Human Media Lab (HML) is located at Queen’s University campus in Kingston, Ontario and is Canada’s premier media laboratory.

HML’s mission is to develop organic technologies and new ways of working with computers.

It is hoped we will be using these discoveries 10 to 20 years from now.

The lab is currently working on the design of “Organic User Interfaces,” which allows computers to have any shape or form and is the concept behind next-generation computers.

Computing displays will soon completely imitate the look of real ink. This will cause another revolution in computer user interface design.

The futuristic “final frontier” for human-computer interaction, according to HML, will result in the ability of computers to take on any organic shape or form.

“What we’re talking about here is nothing short of a revolution for human-computer interaction,” says Dr. Roel Vertegaal, who is an Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction teaching at Queen’s University School of Computing.

HML is directed by Dr. Vertegaal and working with him is a number of graduate and undergraduate students with computing, design, psychology and engineering backgrounds.

“The shape of things to come in the computer world will be anything but flat,” predicts Dr. Vertegaal, who is now developing prototypes of what are called “non-planar” or “non two dimensional” devices in his Human Media Laboratory.

According to Dr. Vertegaal, these new devices will take on flexible forms we’ve never imagined – like soda or pop cans with wireless web browsers displaying new movie trailers. This is just one example of what we may see in the future.

Imagine drinking from a Coke or Pepsi can with an electronic cylindrical display playing text messages and videos on its surface.

HML states the electronics can be separated and recycled apart from the aluminum can – got-to-be-green, you know.

Some of the new devices will be elastic and bendable with the ability to change their own shape. For example, reusable “organic computing displays” are being designed so they can be folded up and stored away like a piece of paper.

The HML web site lists recent advances in computer technology which permits inventors to use their imagination and go beyond current computing design restrictions.

One new advance is “smart fabric” or “woven circuitry” clothing now being tested in Dr. Vertegaal’s laboratory.

One example would be a rolled-up “cloth” computer keyboard.

I truly believe we will be seeing clothes with intelligent “smart fabrics” displaying colorful multimedia advertising on them soon.

Another developing technology – flexible displays – is found in “flexible” circuit boards with organic LEDs (light emitting diodes) and is used in making electronic paper.

These “electrophoretic ink” or “E-Ink” displays are formed from millions of tiny, polarized ink capsules.

Based on a plus or minus voltage representing the 1s and 0s – which we all know is how the computer communicates – the “E-Ink” will either attract or repel their polarized ink capsules to form the message to be displayed.

Once the display is “electrophorectically painted” with the message, the voltage is switched off.

This flexible base layer allows the last displayed message to act and behave like paper. It can be folded any way you would a regular piece of paper.

HML has a video on their web site about “paper windows” which they believe will be the world’s first electronically printed foldable paper computer.

“Organic User Interface” is the HML project name for the group developing the world’s first completely foldable paper computer.

The prototype computer paper uses “leaf turns” (method a reader uses by bending the corners of the document) to navigate through the “pages” which are embedded within this single “sheet” of computer paper.

Another technology being worked on is the Kinetic Organic Interface, which makes possible the design of computers that adjust their shape or physically “morph” in response to some computational result.

HML expects to produce what is called a “claytronic 3D display” which is capable of displaying not just pictures, but physical sculpture-like shapes in three dimensions.

“We want to reduce the computer’s stranglehold on cognitive processing by imbedding it and making it work more and more like the natural environment,” says Dr. Vertegaal. “It is too much of a technological device now, and we haven’t had the technology to truly integrate a high-resolution display in artifacts that have organic shapes: curved, flexible and textile, like your coffee mug.” he concluded.

Some remarkable video presentations about these new technologies are available on the HML web site located at http://www.humanmedialab.org.

To see some pictures of this new technology along with more information about today’s column, visit your bits_blogger’s “Web Site of The Week” forum online at the Herald Journal web site.