This is BIG: inside the lab that’s building the gadgets of the future

Game controllers made of ultrasound! Displays made of mist! Shape-shifting gadgets!

All too often in tech, we don’t find out about the genius behind the gadgets until they're on the shelves. So we took a trip to the Bristol Interaction and Graphics (BIG) group at Bristol University, to meet some frighteningly intelligent people and take a look at the devices we’ll be using in a decade or more.

SHAPE-SHIFTING GADGETS

In a large workshop in Bristol University's Merchant Ventures building, the interfaces and displays of the future are taking shape. They won't be built here, at least not in their final forms - this is a research lab, where the first prototypes of the next decade's consumer tech are being soldered, printed and programmed. Amid a jumble of drawers, boxes, desks and machinery, weird devices can be seen - a machine that blows bubbles full of scented mist, an augmented-reality printer, a volumetric display that creates 3D images in a screen of falling water droplets.  

In the office next door, I’m introduced to Anne Roudaut, whose desk is covered with small articulated devices that bend and fold, blocks that work together to assume new forms. Her job is to design gadgets that change shape, of their own accord.

“We think that phones should be able to change shape”, says Anne, “so that if I want to play a game, it will curve at the sides so that I can grasp it, or maybe there will be a joystick that will pop up. Or if I need a keyboard, one can come out of the screen. Or maybe if I need a stressball, I can just scrunch it up. I want to reintroduce all the shapes we have in the world around us into digital devices. So, it’s a bit like Transformers.”

Anne has created a great many different hardware prototypes, along with software to control them. “One of the first things I started working on was how we could make a touchscreen shape-changing”, she says, and by this she doesn’t mean bendy - she means a screen that has muscles of its own. “We took the sort of screen you find in an e-reader, and we attached some shape-memory alloy wires to it. It’s a really interesting metal that changes shape when heated, so you apply a little current, and it changes shape,” says Anne, demonstrating how the fine grid of alloy wires can bend the e-ink screen. And while bending is all very well, her next project - entitled Morphees - uses the same technology to fold into different shapes.

 

“The touchscreen would be made from tiles,” she explains, showing me a prototype made from laser-cut wooden tiles, “and each one is articulated with wires made from shape-memory alloy. So depending on where you apply current, it folds up and changes into different shapes. The wires do heat up, but they’re so thin that a user wouldn’t feel the heat".

Anne says it’ll be 10-15 years before you can buy a phone or a smartwatch that scrunches itself into different shapes, but she believes shape-changing technology will definitely have a role to play in wearable technology. Big business agrees - the lab has had visits from HP, Nokia and others - as does Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. And some of her work is going much, much further - “I have a colleague who’s at the Mars Desert Research Station, where they have to do everything as if they’re actually on Mars. We’re also looking at using shape-changing technology to help people physically feel their environment through space suits.” Which makes even a shape-shifting phone seem rather, well, terrestrial.

More after the break...

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Sitting across the office from Anne is Diego Martinez, who’s working on something larger and more collaborative. ‘Mistable’ is a tabletop display that doesn’t use glass, but a screen made from a curtain of mist.

“Imagine we’re a group working on a tabletop display,” says Diego with the relaxed authority of someone who knows this will be a commonplace event in the near future. “We’re all seeing the same stuff. But if you want to see your email, you have to make it visible to everyone. And if there’s something you want to take a look at, it has to be on the tabletop, so it’s occluding whatever else is on there.” The solution is to have a flat tabletop display that everyone shares, and in front of each user is a screen made of fog. Users can transfer what’s on their fog-screen to each other’s private displays, or they can push it onto the main screen with their hands. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, but it’s not: Diego and his colleagues have already built one.

The display on the mist screen may be slightly turbulent, but it’s usable enough even in this first prototype. A Leap Motion tracks my hand, allowing me to move images around, and with head-tracking they can be rotated in 3D. When I want to move a picture to the flat table display in the middle of the Mistable, I simply push it through the screen and onto the tabletop display. If in 15 years’ time we’re using Mistable displays to work collaboratively during meetings, then there will finally be a reason to want to go to a meeting.

AN INVISIBLE BUMBLEBEE MADE OUT OF PARKING SENSORS

Finally I’m allowed to gets my hands on (or rather, off) the game controller you’ll be using in ten years’ time. The Ultrahaptics project is something that has won the BIG lab a lot of attention, and rightly so: it’s a brilliant idea that could revolutionise the way we interact with computers, because it allows you to feel what’s being displayed, in mid-air.

The Ultrahaptics interface works by tracking your hand (again, the prototype I tried used a Leap Motion) and firing a tight beam of ultrasound at your hand when it comes into ‘contact’ with what’s being displayed.

I played a simple Breakout-style game using an Ultrahaptics controller and a Leap Motion, and it was… well, it was weird. The hand tracking was normal enough - I moved my open hand from side to side, and the paddle on the screen followed it - but when the ball bounced off the paddle I could feel it make contact with a buzz, as if an invisible bumblebee had just blundered into my palm. It’s dizzyingly futuristic, but at the moment this controller is made from off-the-shelf components.

“They’re parking sensors,” explains Sriram Subramanian, co-director of BIG, “the same things that go in the back bumper of your car. We’ll soon be able to increase the resolution because there are new sensors available that take up a quarter of the space, and use less energy. We can do multitouch, too, and we’re playing with different array sizes - the prototype we’ve got here is about the size of a keyboard but we can go up to a square metre. At a distance of one to two metres, that’s going to be nice for gaming.”

The BIG boffins are investigating all sorts of applications for Ultrahaptics, from light switches to car headrests that let you feel, on your neck, the presence of a car in your blind spot. Sriram says these are achievable in the near future, but what really has me enthralled is the idea of combining Ultrahaptics with a display like the Mistable. With tactile feedback added, you could really push pictures around on your screen. You could have 3D images that you could really reach out and touch, floating objects made of nothing but sound and light. If that doesn’t set your imagination whirring, you’re on the wrong website, and possibly the wrong planet.

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