SFU Surrey's Interactivity Lab

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Where research dreams come true

by Sharon J. Proctor, Ph.D
Photo Illustration by Gary Stasiuk <www.liquidjourney.com>

There's nothing conventional about SFU Surrey's interactivity lab. What seems familiar . . . is quite unfamiliar actually. Even the campus is a bit surreal. It's located in the large Central City shopping mall, a bulky reinforced concrete building complete with office tower and large parkade. You walk among shoppers, shops, and mall displays to get to SFU's entrance. And the instant you pass through the double glass doors, you're transported from the smells and sounds of crowds, merchandise, and fast foods to a subdued academic milieu. The interactivity lab is at the end of a long corridor. Again you step from one world into another - from the conventional university world into a world of imagination.

Why have the lab? It’s the result of the school’s interdisciplinary mandate, which brings to the Surrey campus experts from diverse fields.

Feast for the imagination

The main room is a scene of multiple spaces and environments. At first, you see only islands of office-like work areas, each with the usual campus-grey desk, tables, files, computer, printer, and shelves. But take a closer look. All the furniture has wheels! And some of it's rather oddly shaped. In fact, the whole place is like a giant Lego set. Everything is designed to be quickly disassembled, moved, and reassembled into different combinations and configurations. And there's more.

Over against one wall, for instance, is a pile of brightly coloured, shiny clothes. They look like Shakespearean costumes. But they're different. Each of these "costumes" has wireless devices and integrated circuits sewn into it.

Further along you see something familiar; it looks like a large office photocopier. Guess again! Observe the beautiful little "carved" white figurines on the table beside it - a perfect miniature human hand, a tiny automobile differential case, a cone, a square block, a cellphone case, a mesh tube, and other shapes. "They're made of cornstarch," says lab manager Gordon Pritchard. "This is a 3-D printer. It behaves like a traditional computer printer except that instead of ink it puts down thin layers of cornstarch or plaster. The figure gets built up layer by layer over several hours. Researchers use it to explore new designs and concepts."

There's a door nearby. Open it and you find yourself on a theatre stage equipped with motion-capture cameras, robotic lights, dimmers, controllers, sensors, computers, an eight-channel sound system, and other equipment. "Researchers use this to explore interactivity in live performance," Pritchard explains. Here, performers' arms and legs are attached to tiny devices, which can be tracked by motion-capture cameras. Their body movements can cause moving images to be projected on the wall behind, or can change the music or lighting or mood.

The lab also provides some amazing experimental "environments." One is a room called the Black Box, which is flat black. Here, real space seems to disappear, and you can create artificial space boundaries with lighting or with projected computer images.

Then there's the Kermit Room, named after Kermit the Frog because of its pea-green walls. A special Chroma Key process nullifies the colour green and inserts a computer image in its place. This is how Superman flew over Metropolis in the movie. The actor was in a harness before a green wall, and the aerial view was inserted wherever there was green. Why green? Among other things, video cameras are particularly sensitive in the green wavelengths, giving better resolution, flexibility, and detail.

Here, real space seems to disappear, and you can create artificial space boundaries with lighting or with projected computer images.

Ever heard of "fake space"? The interactivity lab has a computerized environment, involving two surfaces - either two walls or a wall and floor - each showing a computer image. When they are operating, the result is a synthetic environment. It's a virtual space for works of art, or to simulate walking through a building not yet built or driving a car that doesn't exist. "Right now we have two screens, which are very heavy and expensive," explains John Bowes. "Eventually we'd like more screens to increase the immersion effect." John Bowes is director of SFU's school of interactive arts and technology, which oversees the lab.

A creative place by any stretch of the imagination!

"The interactivity lab," Bowes explains, "is for designing tools and environments that make it easy for people to interact with machines. It isn't a new concept. Microsoft, for example, continues to work on making Windows and their other products easier to operate, so more people will use them. Our present facility is a prototype. Over the next 18 months we will be building more permanent laboratories in the building below this tower."

Why have the lab? It's the result of the school's interdisciplinary mandate, which brings to the Surrey campus experts from diverse fields. As Bowes points out: "Our faculty is made up mostly of engineers, computer scientists, performance artists, exhibition artists, social scientists, and educational technologists. The interactivity lab is a research environment where faculty and students can do interesting projects."

In case you think the lab is a bit frivolous, keep in mind that all technologies seem frivolous at first. "The telephone, for instance, was invented in the late 1870s," notes Bowes, "but ridiculed as a 'toy' into the 20th century. As Queen Victoria 's lord high chamberlain at Windsor Castle reflected, 'I don't know why we need telephones. If I want to send a message, I send a boy with a note!' They already had the telegraph. Who needed phones! Still, people experimented with various uses, including (in the 1890s) broadcasting regular programs over telephone lines. You could, for instance, dial up to hear the latest newspaper read aloud. The technologies being explored in the interactivity lab are in their infancy. They haven't found their niche in our society yet."

In one project, called ec(h)o, SFU researchers are exploring the use of computers to help people get more out of museum visits. The museum acts like a computer controlled by the visitor. You wear headphones and carry around a little cube. And you rotate the cube according to what you want to hear. Cameras in the ceiling detect the rotation and turn on a narrative, music, sound effects, or technical information. The SFU team tested ec(h)o with great success in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa . Visitors enjoyed the experience, and museum staff noticed an improved flow of traffic through the galleries.

Another such project is called Whispers. An SFU team makes costumes embedded with electronic devices that measure the physiological state of whoever wears them. It's based on respiration and heart readings, which in turn cause a change of state in the same garment, or someone else's, or in another entity. As the actor moves, for instance, he or she might trigger the costume to do such things as turn on a fan inside itself, or light up part of it, or have a computer-generated image move as the actor moves. A performer could dance with a computer image. In an art exhibit, you might wear something that adds visualizations of your heart and lung readings to images projected on the floor.

Now, back to the future

Will any of this research ever be important to the ordinary person? John Bowes thinks so. "It might not be to everyone's satisfaction, but it could be important in the same way that Amazon.com and eBay are important. These two are changing the way we shop. Imagine virtual malls on the computer. Instead of trying on clothing, you put on a 'jacket' that measures you and instructs a factory to produce a custom coat or shirt."

In one project, called Ec(h)o, SFU researchers are exploring the use of computers to help people get more out of museum visits.

The problem is most technologies that gain mass popularity do so only after many years of experimentation. Marconi sent the first radio signals in 1894, but radio didn't achieve a mass market until the 1920s. Likewise, it took the car 15 years to find a mass market; the computer, nearly 40 years; and TV, around 20 years. "We think that by good design and using this lab, we can shorten the time interval between the first introduction and mass public use," insists Bowes. "There are some 25 or 30 people using the facility right now. We can speed up the testing, the exploration of possible applications, and the search for ways to make new technologies easier to use."