eTech & Art & More

Emerging Technologies

Forrester Cole
14 August 2001

Emerging Technologies is a collection of experimental and research work, usually connected to graphics or interface design. The best examples combine innovative technology with appealing design and execution. This year the better part of the exhibits are focused on technologies that improve the human-computer interface, with a minority of exhibits on other, eclectic subjects. The interface exhibits range from direct improvements on conventional display and haptic feedback devices to more adventuresome systems that add a new dimension to interaction. The remainder of the exhibits vary from a simulated wolf pack to a teddy bear that is also a communication device.

Alpha Wolf
Modeling the social interactions of a wolf pack is the goal of the MIT Media Lab's Alpha Wolf project. A human player may guide the behavior of a wolf pup as it interacts with other wolf pups and adults, including the titular alpha male himself. The pup learns his place in the pack through a combination of the player's interactions and the behavior of the totally computer-guided wolves. The player interactions are limited to enticing the pup to bark, howl, or growl at a target wolf. Depending on the attitude of the other wolf, the result may be aggression, play, submission, or a number of other behaviors. The pup will remember the results of the encounters, and may act accordingly the next time it encounters that wolf.

As with many good artificial intelligence systems, several wolves together are fun to watch without any player intervention at all. The subtle but effective black-and-white cartoon rendering portrays each pup's emotions well, so the player is almost never confused about the mood of their charge. The interface is a combination of microphone and mouse. While the player uses the mouse to select a target for the pup's action, they must bark or howl into the microphone themselves to actually cause the action. Thankfully, a pup can perform reflex urination without any player intervention.

Informative Art
The OS X Aqua desktop may look really slick, but it is probably not something you want to hang on your wall. Informative Art, developed by a group at the PLAY-Interactive Institute in Sweden, is a way of displaying information that is both readable and attractive. Images inspired by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Andy Warhol, and Mark Rothko are projected onto hanging screens. Each image provides information in a non-obvious way. The rectangles of color in the Mondrian style image, for example, represent the weather in six cities. The cans of soup in the Warhol-inspired piece are a subtle clock; as the day wears on, asparagus soup cans are replaced by tomato equivalents. Bands of color in the Rothko style image represent activity in the room over time, and move gradually across the screen.

The simplicity and nonrepresentational nature of the art is used to good effect. There is no visible user interface, yet once the purpose of the image is explained the information contained in it becomes completely obvious. The killer application for Informative Art may be even simpler, however: the next time a friend examines a modern artwork's lines and expanses of color and says, "I don't get it," you may have an answer ready.

New Display Systems
Several exhibitors in Emerging Technologies are showing off systems meant to improve the way information is viewed. The Illusion Hole, developed at Osaka University, takes the conventional stereo table display a step further. The Hole allows up to three people wearing shutter glasses to share the illusion of a three-dimensional object. The system draws a separate image for each viewer, so each person receives a clear and undistorted picture, regardless of the position of the two other viewers. Each viewer can walk around the table and view the object from any angle.

If three people are still too few, the Cylindrical 3D Display provides a three dimensional illusion that any number of people can experience at once. The device uses a set of spinning LEDs and a set of contra-rotating shutters to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object inside the cylinder. The combination allows the display to show the object from any angle, which allows many people to view the same object with stereo vision. The result is an object with palpable depth, though currently only in one color and at low resolution.

Resolution and color are the strong points of the Reality Center, which provides a huge, curved screen driven by two big LCD projectors. While the concept of stitching multiple high resolution displays together has been around for a long time, this iteration uses bright LCD projectors that allow the system to be used in a room with ambient light. The result is a huge, bright screen that any number of people can simply walk up to and gather around.

In contrast to the other three technologies, the I-Ball is a personal display system. The I-Ball is meant to evoke the classic image of a crystal ball. An embedded mirror reflects the image from a hidden projector, leaving the ball itself clean and simple. The visage of the user looking into the ball is captured through a half-silvered mirror, allowing the people communicating to actually look into each others' eyes. The system also includes a gesture-based interface for interacting with images inside the ball, demonstrated by a robot that you can wave to and then - of course - destroy.

Augmented Reality
Some more adventuresome exhibits go beyond refining the display to changing the way a user interacts with the system. Most elaborate of these is the Mobile Augmented Reality System, which also wins the Blade Runner Award for the most conventionally futuristic device. The system consists of a backpack and a headset, monitored by a set of wall and ceiling sensors. When donned, the display presents an augmented view of the exhibit floor, complete with wireframe models and text labels.

The Everywhere Display attempts to remove the visible hardware of the display entirely. A projector and camera are placed where they can view an entire room. Using a rotating mirror, the display then projects images onto any surface in the room, including tables, walls, and paint cans. The camera watches the projected image, and senses when a user touches part of the display. In the example installation, the system helps users build an image out of colored M&Ms. Each user places a few pieces, so that as more people come through the exhibit and more M&Ms are placed, a collaborative piece of candy artwork becomes visible. Not as flexible as a visor and backpack, but much more comfortable.

The Origami Desk also helps users create artwork. When human assistance becomes insufferable, an origami artist may turn to the desk for help. While the desk has a conventional touchscreen interface for navigation, it can also sense the position of a specially prepared piece of origami paper. The paper is covered with conductive loops, one in each corner and one in the middle. The desk is sensitive to the resonant frequency of each loop. The user places his or her paper on the desk and tries to follow the instructions illuminated on the surface. If a fold goes awry, the desk will know and can correct the user.

A Must See.


Check out the preview video and all of the contributors at the conference eTech site.

An interview with this year's eTech Chair, Mk Haley


Emerging Technologies, or eTech (to insiders) provides a glimpse into the possible future, but like Galadriel's mirror. It is just one of the possible futures. It has been known by its current name since 1999.


In 1998 it was known as Digital Pavilions

In 1997 it was know as Electric Garden

In 1996 it was the Digital Bayou


The Illusion Hole in eTech is described in the Paper: Interactive Stereoscopic Display for Three or More Users by Yoshifumi Kitamura et al.


This page is maintained by YON - Jan C. Hardenbergh All photos you see in the 2001 reports are due to a generous loan of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY