It’s all about the interaction, baby: TEI 2012

Mar 02, 2012 | Posted in fashion-tech, geekcraft, sci-osophy

[TEI 2012 Video Showcase]

Last week I was in Kingston, Ontario, at TEI 2012 — the sixth international conference on tangible, embedded, and embodied interaction. Basically this conference looks at the future of ubiquitous computing, asking questions about how we might use everyday objects that have been imbued with delicious digital magic.

How about a social yoga mat that tells you which position to twist into next or tells your yogi friends you’re practicing right now (and lets you know whether they are, too). Would this mat help you to exercise more?

Champlain Chocolates frogWhat if you could create a physical model with your hands while your computer modelled it simultaneously in a program like CAD? Easy peasy, or rather, Easigami. You could design a totally cool light switch — no boring flip switch or commonplace dimmer for you. It could look like a pair of toe shoes or a peony or a chocolate frog. (Okay, I’m jumping a tiny bit ahead of this tool’s current capability, but such research lends itself to extrapolation.)

You wouldn’t even have to put any electronics into your beautiful design. Using dSensingNI software plus a Kinect (to capture your every move in 3D), you would only need to touch that faux chocolate frog and a signal could be sent telling the electricity to turn on or off. And because you’re unencumbered by the vagaries of wiring, you could attach that switch (fake chocolate frog) wherever you wanted — to the wall, the door, the table. (And yes, dSensingNI + Kinect can do this right now.)

dSensingNI Framework

Pretty cool, huh?

The first time I attended a TEI conference was in 2010 and I was blown away. First off, it was held at the brand-new Media Lab building at MIT. I have to admit I had stars in my eyes because I was such a fan of the MIT Media Lab. And I wasn’t disappointed. The building was gorgeous — all sparkling glass and white leather couches — that’s how I remember it anyhow. And having no more than a news-story knowledge of ubiquitous computing, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of work that imagined how we might not just stare and type at our digital world, but stroke it, listen to it, even blow bubbles across a bowl of water to navigate it.

So I have to admit that this year was a little disappointing on the holy-crap-it-can-do-what?!! meter. Almost all of the projects presented, discussed and demoed were just chugging along the continuum of poking, stroking, throwing, hearing and splashing. Although there was one art project in particular I still remember, Memory of a Tree, which was beautifully realized. A bare tree branch stands in a glass box. When at least two hands are placed in the handprints at the top of the box, the tree’s shadow begins to flower. When the hands are pulled away, the tree loses its leaves to an invisible wind. As co-creator António Gomes’ explains,

My grandmom who has Alzheimer’s disease often said with awareness of herself that her life is over. […] People often say that old creatures had their beautiful time before; [but] they are still beautiful like that dead branch is also beautiful. So it seems too hard to define which part of life is more meaningful. Just, through this work, I want to say that all creatures blossom in the beauty of each moments involving the moment which recalls the past.

[The Memory of a Tree, from Oh, Hyun Joo]

There were also several demos that were a pleasure to watch in action or play with, like the TK 730 knitting machine or Machine à Turlute. And the closing keynote, Programming Materiality, by Joanna Berzowska of XS Labs, made me want to leave my job, move to Montreal and join her program at Concordia University.

But nothing lit my brain on fire.

Then I realized that ubiquitous computing is finally becoming, well, ubiquitous. Which is really exciting. Quite a few of the projects presented at TEI 2012 use the sophisticated motion-capture ability of Microsoft’s Kinect, which has become commonplace in many American households. We’re no longer amazed by the fact that we don’t need a controller in one hand in order to interact with a computer program. We’re becoming accustomed to the idea of the digital existing elsewhere, in the “cloud.” And we have no difficulty with the idea of an object existing simultaneously in the digital and physical realms, even if our concepts of what they are overlap. For example, we read books on our e-readers, yet we also read books as books; we’re not confused by a book being on an e-reader and simultaneously a physical object in and of itself.

In fact, over the last two years, our ability to navigate ubiquitous computing has grown at an unprecedented rate. Which actually makes the TEI conference all that much more interesting.

Let’s go back to that light switch for a minute.

Would anyone recognize our fake chocolate frog as a light switch if you didn’t tell them? I think you might have a light switch with a lot of bite marks. And what about putting the switch on a table instead of a wall? Useful or silly? What if the object were somehow recognizable as a light switch and on a table in addition to the wall. Now that might be a good idea. For some people. Which is what the TEI conference is all about: interaction. How we use the digital possibilities already in our world. How we create new embodied hybrids. And how all of this changes us and the world we live in.

Digital interactions are now as much a part of our world as the pine trees in my back yard that grow like weeds. And we need a conference like TEI to help us touch, hear and splash our way forward. Watch the entire conference on Ustream.

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