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Why floors, walls and ceilings are the next interface

Mike Elgan | April 13, 2015
We already have the technology. It's just not cheap enough yet.

Evidence of the rise of display technologies and applications that use household and office surfaces as computer interfaces is everywhere. Here are three such examples from a single company: Microsoft.


The first is in the area of gaming. Microsoft has a research project -- and patents to go with it -- for something it calls IllumiRoom. The idea is that when you're playing an Xbox video game, your peripheral vision can be projected onto the walls, floor and ceiling of the room you're playing in. So, for example, if you're playing a shoot-em-up game in a jungle environment, the TV still has the focus of the action, but all around you is a projected jungle that corresponds in real time to the action on the screen.

The second is a technology that Microsoft introduced in January. It's a new approach to augmented reality represented by Microsoft's HoloLens technology (but also by technology from a company called Magic Leap).

These user interfaces can incorporate surfaces in a room, something Microsoft's demo makes clear. Instead of totally immersing you in a virtual, computer-generated world, as is the case with virtual reality, augmented reality can let you see the actual room you're in, and the virtual objects behave as if they're in the room, too. Virtual, computer-generated objects appear to sit on tables or bounce off walls.

The third example can be found in Microsof's occasional vision videos, which represent the company's expectations about how people will interact with computers in the next five to 10 years. One very strong theme of these videos is what you might call smart glass technology, where a regular window becomes an interactive, HD touch display on command. The concept may look futuristic and far-fetched in Microsoft's videos, but the technology to bring it into existence is already being developed.

Of course, Microsoft isn't the only company working on this general class of display technology -- not by a long shot.

The new world of ubiquitous displays

Samsung's vision videos go even further. Beyond expecting walls and windows to become displays, Samsung envisions objects like coffee cups and kitchen cutting boards becoming interactive touch displays. If all that sounds futuristic, recall that Samsung demonstrated working prototypes at CES three years ago. At this point, the advancements in technology are less about capability and more about making it cheap enough to ship.

Even the automotive industry expects car windows to become interactive.

What's exciting about this idea is that it's a general concept, not a technology or even a broad approach to technology. It will take place through projectors, through pixel-based surfaces, through augmented reality and through a combination of these technologies. What's thrilling is the idea and -- more to the point -- the change in behavior that it engenders.


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