Displays :: Entering a New Dimension

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Holy holograms! The next frontier indisplay technology promises to bring a swirlof changes to the 21st-century classroom.

Displays"I'm about to show you some stuff that's just ready to come out of the lab," Jeff Han tells his audience. "I really think this is going to change theway we interact with machines."

A research scientist with New York University's department of computer science, Han has generally focused his attention on real-time computer graphics, but lately he's been hard at work on what he calls "multi-touch interaction research."

He stands over a large screen that lies on a 36-inch-wide drafting table. The table, Han explains, is equipped with a multi-touch sensor, and when he runs his fingers over the screen, it projects a series of images onto a larger screen behind him. The technology allows Han to do a variety of magical things, including moving around and expanding photographs and icons at will. He can also construct a two-dimensional keyboard right on the screen and use it as he would a three-dimensional keyboard. The coolest thing is the lava-lamp effect he creates, "heating up" the "lava" with his fingers and causing globules to pulsate and move about.

What Han likes about the application is its intuitiveness. And, he explains to the audience, "our technique provides unprecedented resolution and scalability."

What's the upshot of this new display wizardry? If Han is right, only the extinction of one of our most cherished and longstanding pieces of electronic technology- the keyboard. What this means for the classroom of the 21st century will be transforming. Instead of writing and erasing on blackboards, or using a stylus on interactive whiteboards, teachers and students will use their fingers and hands to manipulate information and create presentations. Han says he anticipates a time when the keyboard is a dim memory.

So, it appears, does Microsoft Research's Andy Wilson, who's working on a tool similar to Han's, an interactive touch screen called TouchLight. Wilson says the program takes a normal sheet of acrylic plastic and transforms it into what he says is "a high-bandwidth input/output surface suitable for gesture-based interaction."

The way it works, a man approaches the touch screen, lays his hands on it, and creates the same lava-lamp effect that Jeff Han did. But he does something else. He holds a document up to the screen, and a camera takes a snapshot of it. He removes the document, but the image remains. Now he can move the image around, expand it, shrink it, and pretty much have it do as he wishes.The image has become 3-D.

The future this technology forecasts seems as paranormal as it is revolutionary. As Wilson describes it, it's a future in which "potentially any surface in the world is a site of input and computation, and the very displays we use and spaceswe inhabit are aware of our presence."

THE SHADOW KNOWS

NEWFANGLED PROJECTION TECHNOLOGY SHINES A LIGHT ON INSTRUCTION, NOT ON THE USER.

DisplaysWith iMatte's iSkia-Greek for "theshadow"-teachers can face their students, standingbetween the projector and the screen, somewhat likea TV weatherman between a camera and a map.

According to iMatte, iSkia "generates a ‘mask' that corresponds to the shape of a person standing in front of the projection screen," thus preventing the image from blinding the presenter. And the projected images don't end up displayed on the teacher's wardrobe or forehead in the midst of a presentation. Instead, the teacher casts a shadow on the screen. What's more, the device enables teachers to turn themselves into human cursors. By pushing a button on a remote, teachers can "draw" across the screen using the part of their body farthest from the midpoint- a finger, a foot, whatever works. They can pull up columns on a bar graph, pull out bullet points from the side of the screen, or rotate images at will.

Larry Uichanco, iMatte's vice president of product development, says iSkia is actually targeted for K-12. The beauty behind the technology is that it's a natural for teachers who are accustomed to standing in front of an electronic whiteboard and interacting with their presentation. He adds that often teachers are stuck behind a podium, losing eye contact and the connection with students that makes a presentation engaging.With iSkia, says Uichanco, teachers can navigate their entire presentations. And he adds that any teacher who makes use of, say, PowerPoint presentations will be able to use this device.

The system used to be a piece of hardware that could be mounted above or beneath a projector, but now iMatte is developing iSkia as an internal part of a projector's light engine. Uichanco says projector manufacturers are looking for a way to differentiate products, and incorporating iSkia into the projectors will be a good way to do it. He predicts that a prototype will be developed within the year, and educators will have access to the product soon thereafter.

Wilson says that standard desktop computing-chair, desk, keyboard, machine-will be supplanted by mobile,"casual" computing, in which displaysare "annexed as needed" according towhere the user is and what the user wishesto do. "In the future," he says, "computationwill be everywhere."

Coming Attractions

If the keyboard is on its way out, what will become of the screen? David Thornburg thinks it's not far behind. It's Thornburg's job and pleasure, as the director of the Thornburg Center in Lake Barrington, IL, to keep up with technology trends, particularly those in educational technology. In addition, Thornburg was involved with the creation of the federal E-Rate program, and he has been an ed tech commentator for PBS. He says he sees breakthroughs in 3-D displays coming in the next five years, such as the Heliodisplay, developed by Chad Dyner, CEO of IO2 Technology. In an interview, Dyner described the Heliodisplaythis way:

"The Heliodisplay transforms ambient air using a proprietary multi-stage system of modifying the optical characteristics within a planar region in which polychromatic light is scattered on this surface such that the image appears visible to the viewer." In lay terms, what you get is something like the Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars-an image suspended in midair, rather than projectedflat on a screen.

In the future, computation will be everywhere.
- Andy Wilson, Microsoft Research

"It takes a lot of computing power to generate a 3-D display," Thornburg says."The parallel technology that I think isgoing to make this possible is the multicoreprocessor. In principle, if you've gotthe graphics power sitting there on theprocessor, then 3-D technology canbecome real and affordable."

The end result, potentially, is classrooms without screens. Thornburg can imagine students comparing gas structures of Saturn and Earth, with the models literally hanging out in space. The students might not only view the planets, but also reach "into" them and manipulatedifferent components of the objects.

Think of the applications for health education: You could lay your hand on a heart, pinch a valve, and see the effects. Or for geometry: You could pull out one side of a parallelogram to see how the angles change. And imagine how much students would suddenly look forward to driver's ed. "The ultimate goal," says Thornburg, "is that the computer gets out of the user's way. The extent to which we can make that happen, we start to see these tools become more effective as tools for learning.

"The technology isn't the point," he emphasizes. "The classroom of the future is so technology-rich that you don't know the technology is there."

Interestingly, it's not advancements in technology that elicit the greatest wonder from Thornburg, but what hasn't advanced. Back in the 1970s, Thornburg worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. He was on the team that developed the desktop interface that's so common to today's computing. Because Xerox worked almost exclusively with Fortune 500 companies, the company designed something with documents and folders so users would feel comfortable with it. Later, Microsoft and Applewould use the same technology.

"I'm shocked," Thornburg says, "that 30 years later, I'm still using the same interface."

Thornburg says his professional history also includes some time spent at the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis. They build androids there. It's where Thornburg visited with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick-well, at least an android of Philip K. Dick, who died in 1982. (Dick would have appreciated this: His 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was adapted for the screen as Blade Runner.) The android was programmed to respond as Dick would, based on his voluminous writings. Moreover, with 70 motors in its face alone, it kind of looked like Dick, too. Thornburg said that after five minutes, it seemed as if he were talking with thewriter himself.

REAR PROJECTORS TO BE ‘WIPED OUT'

MARKET RESEARCH SAYS THAT WITH THEIR NEW AFFORDABILITY, FLAT PANELS WILL TAKE OVER.

Pacific Media Associates predicts that salesof front projectors will soon be taking off.The California company specializes inconducting and reporting market researchon large-screen display categories-frontprojectors, plasma and LCD TVs, and rearprojectiondisplays. According to its mostrecent annual survey of North Americanresellers and retailers:

  • The unit share of "future-proof" 1080p resolution front projectors will grow to 41 percent in 2007.
  • The price gap between 720p and 1080p will continue to shrink.
  • The use of wireless connections with front projectors for Windows Media Center PC installations is expected to triple its 2005 levels to reach a 63 percent attach rate in 2007.

William Coggshall, the company's founder and president, says flatly that rear projection will be "wiped out" by the use of flat panels as they become increasingly cheaper. Soon, flat panels will be at a price level that schools can afford. In fact, Coggshall sees existing technologies getting so inexpensive- as many manufacturers go after small markets-that there might not be that much pressure to develop new technologies.

In the future, he imagines a school district buying an android of Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr., or just about any notable historical figure, who could then conduct lectures and talk with students. "Who knows?" he says."It's all possible."

Mousing Around

Perry Reeves is another futurist. The current president and CEO of International Education Technology Associates, a group of industry experts that works toward the development of technology in education, Reeves previously worked as the director of higher education and K-12 marketing for Pioneer Electronics. He's trained more than 500,000 educators, students, and textbook publishers worldwide in the use of multimedia hardware and software.

On a recent trade trip to National Taiwan University, Reeves had the opportunity to view a new classroom product called the Jumping Mouse. Developed by Taipei's Tangtake Technology, it's about the size of a cell phone, and its USB/VGA adapter connects to any PC, projector, or monitor. The Jumping Mouse allows the user to multitask-to move and browse applications on several screens without overlapping windows, switching the cursor from one to the other, and to present multiple Power- Point, Word, Excel, and Windows Journal documents all together.

Reeves saw a screen come out of a classroom ceiling with three 16:9 aspect ratios, but without any lines separating the distinct parts of the screen- somewhat like what you'd find in an Omni Theater. The projectors were very short-throw and very small.

The presentation allowed both the teacher and the students to observe different environments simultaneously, all of which related to the subject at hand, which in this case was calculus. The teacher could easily bounce back and forth with the Jumping Mouse, integrating all the different facets of the presentation.

Reeves was so enamored with the device that he got himself one for work. He says he's constantly finding new ways to use it. "I get real, real excited," he says, getting real, real excited, "about showing more in a shorter period of time and holding a classroom's attention- doing your work and your research all in the same amount of time. It's fantastic."

What are Reeves' own practical expectations for display technologies in the near future? For projectors, he foresees shorter throw distances, lowerprices, and more lumens.

"No school should have less than 1,200 lumens," he says. "Don't cut your brightness down."

Reeves' notions are supported in part by many of today's leading producers of display products. Jim Phillips, the sales manager of Hitachi's StarBoard Group, which produces interactive whiteboards and software, says his research indicates that interactive whiteboards are a "huge growth area." He says the trend is headed toward pen interaction, mobile panels, larger screens, backlit wireless projection, multiple inputs, and the convergence of videoconferencing and distance learning.

Toshiba, meanwhile, has recently developed a new LCD panel that's usable both in bright outdoor and dark indoor environments (using low-temperature poly-silicon-LTPS-technology, which integrates circuitry directly onto the glass substrate). The user can interact with the screen either by touching it or using an optic pen.

Of course, the new world that displays will be ushering in to K-12 is not about greater lumens and shorter throw distances. It's about magic and invention. It's a world that only a futurist has the nerve to imagine and the capacity to create.

"Suddenly, you're like Alice, stepping through the looking glass, and you're on the other side now," Thornburg says, reveling in what lies ahead. "You're interacting with the environment, not the tool. Ten years from now, we won't be thinking of computers anything like we do today."

:: web extra ::For more information on this topic, visit T.H.E. Journal. In the Browse by Topicmenu, click on Display/Presentation.

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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