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Shaping the future of 3-D

Graduate student Tovi Grossman, part of the human-computer interaction research group at U of T, is figuring out how we all will be using computers in 20 years.

Lots of people have great ideas about new ways of interacting with computers. But building a new device is only the first step. The mouse, for example, was invented in the 1950s, but it took decades before everyone recognized how it could be exploited productively. Grossman’s job is to investigate prototype computer devices and discover how we might want to actually use them.

Natural curves

This summer, before starting course work in his master’s program, Grossman finished a project with a device called a “shape tape.” It looks like a metre-long band of blue plastic, and inside the band are optical fibres and sensors that can detect bending and twisting. With one end of the band fixed in place as a reference point, it can provide digital information about its own position in three dimensions.

Although shape tape existed before Grossman laid his hands on it, there was no clear way of using it productively. His summer project was to create software that uses the input from shape tape to draw and edit 3-D shapes in a computer. Grossman developed a set of simple gestures that anyone can learn and use to activate different computer functions. For instance, holding the shape tape in both hands and swiftly moving them downwards and together, as though breaking a stick, could tell the computer you want to switch from drawing curves to drawing angles.

Grossman wrote 9,100 lines of computer code during the summer to create the new software for the shape tape. But that only proved that a new interface could be built, not that it was useful. To see whether anyone would actually want to use the device, he invited several graphic designers into the lab to give it a try.

In a series of trials, designers were asked to perform tasks with the shape tape that they would normally perform with a mouse or an electronic stylus. They reported that although shape tape would not replace their normal input tools for most tasks, they did find it was a great advantage whenever they wanted to refine the shape of a curve.

Normally, editing a curve in the computer means using the mouse to change the position of dozens of inflection points. But with shape tape in hand, the designer just nudges or stretches the curve into its new formation. That saves a lot of time and is a more natural way to manipulate curves.

Grossman agrees that shape tape is not a replacement for the mouse, but argues that it will find a role. In a few years, he predicts, “shape tape will be one tool in every graphic designer’s tool kit,” ready to use whenever a natural-looking curve is required.

Research is fun

The latest excitement at the human-computer interaction lab is the recently-delivered prototype of a “volumetric display,” built by Actuality Systems. In an amazing improvement over the simulated 3-D that can be had on typical computer screens, the machine can display real three-dimensional images within its transparent sphere. As you walk around the sphere, you see all sides of an object projected inside.

Inside the clear dome is a screen that spins very rapidly, onto which an image is projected from below. As the screen spins, the projected image varies perspective in such a way that from any position, we perceive a volume-filling object hovering under the dome. The image may be small and fuzzy—but just think about the quality of an early computer screen compared to one of today to imagine the difference that a few decades can make.

Grossman demonstrates the machine by pulling up a model of the sucrose molecule, then a human skeleton in full detail, then a crude helicopter that can fly over a wire-frame mountain range. “You can’t crash the helicopter,” he assures. “Everybody tries.”

The display is very cool. But is it useful?

The possibilities for 3-D modelling and for visualizing complex data with such a machine have barely been glimpsed. How can the machine’s abilities be exploited by scientists? By designers? By artists? If we can simulate three dimensions on a flat monitor, can we simulate four inside a volumetric display? When you look at the display, the first thing you want to do is touch the image. What kind of input devices can we use to make that impulse practical?

Grossman is one of the first researchers to use and program a working volumetric display, so he will be able to start answering some of those questions. The goal for his master’s program is to demonstrate the potential of volumetric displays and convince everyone that this is the way 3-D will be done 20 years from now.

Does it seem like his job is to play with expensive toys? Grossman agrees, grinning. “Research is fun,” he says.

Photograph by Kara Dillon
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