Ubiquitous computing done right

I was happily surprised when I saw this video.  I was sent it by Miles, and I think it is an outstanding example of ubiquitous computing.  Amazingly it’s also several years old now, and part of Johnny Lee’s work at Carnegie Mellon University.

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For those of you who can’t watch the video, it’s of a new type of projector calibration.  By embedding fiber optic sensors into the edges of an object, any standard commercial projector can then be automatically calibrated to perfectly project an image onto that object.  It is quite amazing to watch.

Normally I’m a philosophy-first ubicomp kind of guy, and prefer projects that focus on the human effects of ubiquitous computing.  However, I’m not an idealist and I realise that technical innovation is a fundamental requirement of the field.  However I still believe some of the best technical achievements are in reusing existing technology in novel ways.  This is a perfect example of this.  In particular, there are three things that I think are done right:

  1. Keep the functionality simple
  2. Keep the technology smart but simple
  3. Use off-the-shelf-technology

First of all, they focused on a single problem at hand.  Achieving computing potential embedded invisibly still requires a means to interact with that potential.  Finding new ways of getting information displayed on everyday objects is a huge step forward, and previously was a pretty hard task.  It required custom screens, or complex manual configuration.  Solving a single problem provides a design pattern for others to use and extend upon (and then worry about the user experience).

Secondly, the technology itself is simple.  Fibre optic sensors mean the system should be robust and cheap.  There are not a lot of different sensors which could break, nor is there a complex system with fragile dependencies.  Most of the magic is done in the software which allows for further improvement and customization, as seen by the later project:

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Finally, the technology is off-the-shelf.  This project used a single embedded chip, plus a regular projector and some custom software.  Sounds like something both easy to hack up yourself, and to commercialize for other people.  This is a very nice comparison to a system like Microsoft Surface, which is full of proprietary components.

This functional and technical simplicity in turn achieves two things.  One – it means the technology itself is cheap, and two, it is reproducible.  Ubicomp needs to drastically lower the cost of entry to continue rapid expansion and adoption.

With micro-projectors becoming more popular, I’m really looking forward to commercial implementation of such a system.   While there are some shortcomings (such as the brightness of the projected image), this is still a lot more immersive than fiducial markers.  This is the exact type of technology needed to allow ubiquitous computing to be useful to mainstream, commercial applications.