When Dan Olsen, a professor of computer science at Brigham Young University (BYU), was on sabbatical last year at Microsoft Research, he got a bright idea. He realized that even a laptop was too heavy to carry for him, and that a handheld computer was powerful enough to handle the majority of his computing needs. And as Microsoft is introducing 'tabletops,' he decided to 'spill' handheld screen on such a table. Now, he can use these tables to display spreadsheets -- and even games -- in a way which has not been done before. And it works remarkably well according to the demos.
You can see above the BYU's 'Spilling prototype with the hand held laid on the surface of a Diamond Touch table. In this figure the application is a spreadsheet that the user is scrolling by dragging their finger across the surface. The entire application is displayed on the table surface with the interactive focus of the application displayed on the hand held. In terms of usability we compare Spilling to what is possible on a hand held alone as opposed to what might be possible on a desktop computer. The table top context of Spilling greatly enhances the ability of a user to interact with the hand held." (Credit: BYU)
So how does this system work? It is "establishing a circuit through the table top, the user’s body and into a conductive pad placed on the seat. The complete circuit is what makes it possible to scroll and rotate the screen. The only modification to the handheld computer is a plate fastened on the back. The computer synchronizes with a ceiling projector aimed down at the table top."
The advantages of this system are obvious when you watch the BYU video. "Advantages of the system are quickly seen when Olsen’s student assistants sit down to play an electronic version of the popular board game Risk. The playing surface, a map of the world, spills out across the table, covering roughly the same area as the physical version of the board game. One student reaches out and slides the projected map toward his corner to make a move, then rotates the map 180 degrees and pushes it back across the table to the other player."
But where Olsen got his idea to use a table to carry handhelds data? Here is the answer from Tad Walch, who wrote "BYU crew 'spills' data on table" for the Deseret Morning News on October 19, 2007. "Olsen hatched the idea last year when he was on sabbatical at Microsoft Research, where he said a group of computer scientists would sit around "trying to think of cool things to build. "I was working on a laptop and carrying it between home, my office at BYU and Microsoft in Seattle," he said. Now he calls laptops "boat anchors." "I didn't want to carry mine everywhere, and everybody else was doing it, too. We had our handhelds on the table one day and someone asked the question, 'Why can't we just spread our screens out on the table?'"
So he built the interface with his students, but he's already thinking about the next step, which could take several years. "The ultimate outcome would be to allow multiple people to have their handhelds interact on the table at the same time. 'You want to be able to go in, spread stuff out, pass it to each other and work together, then leave,' Olsen said. The whole idea could take five years to get to market because of the high price of the screens. The BYU team is also working on security."
A prototype of this computing interface has been shown at the 2nd IEEE TABLETOP Workshop held on October 10-12, 2007 in Newport, Rhode Island (TableTop 2007). Here is a link to the technical paper which was presented at this workshop under the name "Spilling: Expanding Hand held Interaction to Touch Table Displays" (PDF format, 9 pages, 138 KB). The above illustratuion has been extracted from this document.
Sources: Brigham Young University news release, October 16, 2007; and various websites
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