The Future of Human-Computer Interaction

Imagine the ability to create an iPad on any wall or surface you come across, even on a piece of paper, or the chance to control computers and other physical machines with your brain waves.

This is the future of human-computer interaction, according to innovative researchers and entrepreneurs who took the main stage at VMworld in San Francisco Thursday morning.

SixthSense, a “wearable gestural interface” created by Pranav Mistry of the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group, outfits humans with a small projector, mirror and camera worn around the neck (or on a helmet), and little colored markers worn on the fingers. The prototype lets the user project a computer onto a wall, to check e-mail and browse the Web similarly to how an Apple iPad works, except that the gestures can be made in the air without touching a screen.

Mistry’s video demonstration of SixthSense at VMworld showed him using the technology to take pictures with his hands; project a phone dial pad onto his palm; augment newspapers with footage of President Obama speaking; play a racing game on a piece of paper; get digital updates on a flight projected onto a plane ticket; and play Pong on the Boston subway using his feet as paddles. You can even “copy and paste” text from paper books, placing it in your personal computer screen, which happens to exist anywhere you want it to.

Mistry believes current devices are too limiting, and that people should be able to interact with the information normally locked inside computers and the Internet using the normal human gestures of daily life.

“We as humans are not interested in computers. Our interest is in information,” he said. “There’s no need for us to have two separate worlds” that separate the digital from the physical.

Tan Le, co-founder and president of Emotiv Systems, demonstrated a brain-computer interface technology that gives the user a headset allowing control over electronic systems using brain waves.

“We have dreamed and imagined of a time when it might be possible to control and influence our environment with our brains,” Le said.

Unlike SixthSense, Emotiv’s EPOC Headset is available for sale, at the price of $300. But Le noted that the technology is in its infancy. “We are only scratching the surface of what is possible with this technology today,” she said.

Using VMware CTO Stephen Herrod as a guinea pig, Le demonstrated how the Emotiv headset lets users manipulate objects on a computer screen just by thinking. For example, Herrod was able to “lift” a virtual box after a short training session in which the computer monitored his brain waves to determine what it does when it is at rest and when it is thinking about manipulating an object. Herrod also tried to make the box disappear from the screen, a more difficult task because it is not movement-based, but he didn’t fully succeed.

Le showed a demonstration video with a man controlling a wheelchair with the headset, but the wheelchair moved only slowly and haltingly in response to the man’s thoughts. She said Emotiv’s technology can be used to control characters in virtual worlds and games, and change a room’s lighting and sound based on one’s emotional state.

There’s still a ways to go before SixthSense hits the market, Mistry noted, saying there are still “a lot of technical challenges.” Mistry created several gestural interface technologies leading up to the creation of SixthSense, including an ultrasonic pen that lets you make designs on a computer screen, and an infrared camera attached to a laptop that tracks your hand motions, allowing you to use your hand as if it were controlling a mouse even if no mouse is there.

The SixthSense prototype costs about $350 to build, and Mistry says future ones will make greater use of the infrared camera and won’t require users to wear tabs on their fingers.

Another presenter at VMworld was Natan Linder, an Intel fellow at the MIT Media Lab who developed LuminAR, a prototype system that fits into standard light bulb sockets and projects the Internet onto any surface. Linder’s system achieves a similar effect as SixthSense, but he said it wouldn’t render existing form factors obsolete. Theoretically, LuminAR could connect various devices and objects like iPads, laptops and books.

“The promise of this is having the Internet everywhere you want to,” Linder said.