Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Flashlight computer

Where are the wacky mixtures of new technology that fundamentally change the way we interact with computers? A next generation cell phone is imagined as a phone with cooler buttons. A next generation computer is seen as just another computer you sit in front of except the buttons are shiny. It is time for a flight of fancy, something that is shockingly rare in the world outside of rarified blogs (and perhaps Nintendo's hallucinogenic research labs.)

Here’s an idea called the Flashlight Computer that came to me this morning. It is a small portable computer that mixes camera technology, image processing, high intensity portable projectors and motion sensitive pointing devices to create a unique and intuitive human-computer interface.

Imagine a handheld computer that you point at a wall like a flashlight. A built in project illuminates a portion of your virtual workspace. At the center of the screen is your pointer. As you move your hand, the image naturally moves across the wall.

Now for the fun part. The image is constantly recalculated so that instead of moving with projector, it gives the illusion that it is painted onto the wall. As you move your computer, it acts as a flashlight, revealing new sections of your virtual workspace. A projector that displays a 3 square foot projection are turns a wall into a usable 80 square foot workspace.

Here’s how it works
  • The projector displays registration marks on the wall.
  • The device has a built in camera much like the Eye Toy that capture the registration marks at 120 FPS
  • Image processing determines the perspective distortion of the image and alters the projector’s image so that it looks rectangular from the perspective of the user.
  • As the user moves around, motion is tracked (either through image processing or internal gyroscopes) and the image on the wall is updated to make it appear as if the projector is revealing more of the workspace. To the user it appears as if you are panning across a single larger image. You literally illuminate your works space as you move.
Combine this with a simple onscreen pointer and a button for clicking and you have one powerful pointing device. It can be used anywhere, on any flat surface. You have full mouse capabilities including clicking, dragging and dropping, etc. It can be used to create a virtual world in a real space and it can also be used to augment the current world with virtual information.

What is it good for?
Here are some potential uses:
  • Create the world’s largest continuous desktop. “Where did I leave that file? Oh, that’s right, I stored it in the other corner of the room.”
  • Show walking directions at night. Shine the projector on the ground. It not only illuminates your path during the night, but it uses high resolution mapping information to paint a path that you can follow to your destination.
  • Show complex wiring, pipes, etc inside a building by shining your flashlight at the wall and seeing the interior
  • Games. There are entire universes of games that involve more than just sitting on your rump watching a mundane TV. For starters, just imagine playing an RTS title. Your entire house becomes a canvas.
Ideally, this control device is simple to use, under the user’s complete manual control and highly applicable to a wide range of applications. It would be easier to adopt than a head mounted display that is constantly attached to your noggin. It is much more flexible and convenient than being confined to a desk.

When will it be possible?
The technology to do this is a ways off. Portable projectors of the type needed are likely 20 years away. Computing power will get to the appropriate level in the next 5 years. Digital video cams are close as well. None of this technology is new. It just needs to mature and be integrated into a single system.

I can imagine that such a flashlight computer would be quite a thrill to use. :-)

Take care