The ObelXTech capstone team (left -right): Herman Mak, Mike Ng, Gary Yu, Carmen Tang (not pictured: Davin Mok)

Engineering Science

Engineering science students unveil screenless computer for capstone

July 09, 2015

Science fiction has long been a wellspring of inspiration for engineers. So when a team of five SFU students brainstormed their final capstone project for ENSC 305/440, they set their sights on an idea that’s one part fantasy, two parts practical problem solving.

“We knew we wanted to create something brand new and futuristic,” says team member Carmen Tang.

The result is the LumenX3: a mobile computer that projects a user interface onto any surface. In doing so, the gadget liberates the interface from a bulky, fragile physical screen.

“The projection is sensitive to touch, so users can tap, drag and interact with it as if it were a touch screen,” says the team's CEO Gary Yu.

“It runs on Windows and uses all the applications you would expect from a PC, including things like Dropbox,” adds team member Herman Mak.  

Inspiration for the project stemmed from celluloid: in a recent Spider-Man movie, a futuristic machine projects a computing screen on a table.

Team member Mike Ng explains: “Movies always display cool devices that don’t exist yet. Because we were creating our own product, we thought: why not try to make something similar to what we’ve seen in the film?”

After the brainstorming challenge came some practical considerations: how would this project help solve a real-world problem?

“Current smart devices have screens that crack easily,” says Carmen. “We see the LumenX3 as an alternative to a tablet: you can bring it to a meeting and people can interact with it. To make the screen larger, all you do is increase the size of the projection, so it’s very portable.”

“It’s a new frontier in terms of how people use devices, ” adds Gary. “There is no screen, and yet it’s a full computer.”

VIDEO: The team demos the first LumenX3 prototype -- a physically screenless device that projects an interactive user interface on any surface. 

With just four months to complete such a major project, the team, called ObelXTech, recommends getting an early start on the brainstorming process. “We actually came up with some ideas almost a year before the project due date and asked professors for their feedback, which was really helpful,” says Herman.

Despite working some late nights, (“As the night gets longer and people get hungrier, the Sasquatch appears,” says Carmen with a laugh.) the team stuck it out – with great success.

“I am particularly happy when our students are not intimidated by the challenge of ambitious projects, and this is the case with ObelXTech,” says the capstone course professor Andrew Rawicz who reviewed the projects with senior lecturer Steve Whitmore.  “As they say, sci-fi writers have futuristic ideas and good engineers, with a lot of imagination, can make it real.”

Whitmore agrees: “The team did a remarkable job synthesizing the various engineering science skills they learned over the past five years. They took on a complicated technology that has real commercial potential.”

The team members are all embarking on their own journeys – including PhD studies at Stanford, a co-op work term with Amazon in Toronto and a final semester before starting work at Microsoft – but they’re still keen to continue developing their project with the goal of seeing their invention in the marketplace.

Carmen explains: “The capstone shows you how a startup works – you get to work on your own idea and follow it through. We have a lot ideas of how we can take this project forward and we know what has to be done to make it work even better.”