I want to start my pre­sen­ta­tion with the hum­ble light bulb. So, of the first commercially-available elec­tric light bulbs came off the pro­duc­tion line at the Edison Electric Light Company in 1880. And com­mer­cial light bulbs as we know them were pret­ty good at the time. They were slight­ly brighter than exist­ing tech­nolo­gies, most­ly can­dles and lanterns. Certainly they were a lot more expen­sive at the time. 

But they had one real­ly chief kind of a prop­er­ty, and that was instant, on demand light­ing. So, the fact that you could go up to a light switch, turn it on, and light would sort of pour forth was real­ly an incred­i­ble feat at the time. And it cer­tain­ly changed soci­ety on a glob­al scale. It changed our work prac­tices, how we social­ize, when we go to sleep, and many oth­er aspects of our lives.

But what’s inter­est­ing about the light bulb is that the tech­nol­o­gy has changed over the years. Certainly we’ve gone from sort of incan­des­cents to com­pact flu­o­res­cents and LEDs. So we know the tech­nol­o­gy’s changed over about a hun­dred and forty years. But the func­tion real­ly has­n’t changed. A light bulb from Edison’s era to now, you flip the switch, light comes out, helps you read a book or make din­ner. The func­tion real­ly has­n’t changed, and that’s real­ly quite remark­able in such a long history.

And it’s even more remark­able when you think about how much tech­nol­o­gy has changed in the past cen­tu­ry, espe­cial­ly as it relates to com­put­ing tech­nol­o­gy. So, what we’re try­ing to think about now is, take the sort of ven­er­a­ble light bulb and recast it as a com­pu­ta­tion­al appli­ance. So, how do we take some­thing that’s been so remark­ably suc­cess­ful and infuse it with com­pu­ta­tion­al abil­i­ties? And that’s what we’re work­ing on at CMU.

So, what do I mean by this? Well, if you have a light bulb on one side, you turn it on, light comes out. We’re famil­iar with this tech­nique. [It] helps you read the paper sit­ting on the desk. An info bulb is sim­i­lar; light also comes out. But instead of just being kind of ordi­nary light, it can also be struc­tured light. So it can actu­al­ly ren­der infor­ma­tion and inter­ac­tiv­i­ty onto a surface.

So, to give you a more con­crete exam­ple, you might have an office desk lamp. If you could unscrew that incan­des­cent bulb, throw it away, put in your new info bulb, it could actu­al­ly sense and read every­thing that’s on that sur­face or hap­pen­ing on the table. So, not only read the con­tent on the table and what objects are present, but also be able to track your fin­ger touch­es and your gaze and so on.

So you might have an array of doc­u­ments sit­ting on that table sur­face, and it can actu­al­ly under­stand that con­tent, give you sort of Google search­a­bil­i­ty right on your paper doc­u­ments, have Wikipedia arti­cles linked off. It knows all your email so it can tag maybe experts that you’ve cor­re­spond­ed with in the past. It’ll dig­i­tize your hand­writ­ing, check your math, and all these dif­fer­ent aspects that phys­i­cal­ly aug­ment the envi­ron­ment around us.

You can imag­ine oth­er con­texts, for exam­ple may be recessed light bulbs in the kitchen or the hang­ing lights here. These could also be replaced with some­thing like an info bulb, and it would turn this kitchen set­ting essen­tial­ly into a com­put­ing plat­form. It could under­stand what kind of ingre­di­ents that you’re prepar­ing. It could auto­mat­i­cal­ly start timers when you start boil­ing a pot of water, and so on.

Now, a real­ly suc­cess­ful par­a­digm we want to bor­row is smart­phones. So, what make smart­phones real­ly amaz­ing— Actually the hard­ware is nifty, but apps are real­ly will make them indis­pens­able. And so what’s the notion of sort of tak­ing this notion of an app mar­ket and hav­ing it on the world? So, what sort of apps would you want to have run­ning on your kitchen coun­ter­tops, or run­ning on the sur­face of your desk? And how do we lever­age that notion?

And this starts to sort of change how we think about com­put­ing as we know it today. Right now when we think about embed­ding com­pu­ta­tion in the world, it means sort of sprin­kling lit­tle screens every­where. You might have a lit­tle Nest, you might have a smart­phone, a smart­watch. We real­ly want to embed com­pu­ta­tion in the world, and I think the way to do that is by pro­ject­ing direct­ly onto it and aug­ment­ing the phys­i­cal materials.

Chris Harrison Everyday Devices 00 03 38

So, this isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. We actu­al­ly have this work­ing at Carnegie Mellon. This is actu­al­ly an old­er pro­to­type from about five years ago. And you can see the hard­ware’s not any­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly spe­cial. It’s an off-the-shelf dig­i­tal pro­jec­tor, and we’ve lit­er­al­ly glued on top of that a direct con­nect cam­era, which is a depth cam­era. And this allowed us to start pro­to­typ­ing the soft­ware, which is much more important.

So here is actu­al­ly one of my PhD stu­dents inter­act­ing with the system—there’s one of these sys­tems attached to the ceiling—and he’s lit­er­al­ly able to paint inter­ac­tiv­i­ty onto the walls of his office. His office, for all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es, is a com­put­ing plat­form, it is a com­put­er. And In this case he’s writ­ten a lit­tle app that lets him set an away mes­sage for his office. So if he’s work­ing or if he’s in a meet­ing and so on.

Chris Harrison Everyday Devices 00 04 19

Now, obvi­ous­ly tech­nol­o­gy has evolved even in the last five years, and so we’ve been able to pro­duce an even small­er pro­to­type. So, here what you see, at the bot­tom there’s a pro­jec­tor, under­neath there there’s anoth­er depth cam­era. There’s a com­put­ing board to do the pro­cess­ing. And more impor­tant­ly is we have that light­bulb screw base at the top. So this is some­thing that just in a few years you’ll be able to actu­al­ly have a self-contained unit that you can fit into a reg­u­lar fixture.

So, here’s that new­er sys­tem work­ing now. We can launch appli­ca­tions on tables. There’s a nifty fea­ture you can see where we can actu­al­ly phys­i­cal­ly snap vir­tu­al inter­faces to phys­i­cal objects, in this case a num­ber key­pad to our lap­top and it sends the input to the lap­top. And then here’s anoth­er appli­ca­tion, a GMail cal­en­dar. And we can scroll through our apps and resize the win­dow. So very much like a desk­top computer.

So, back to sort of our notion of light bulbs. Light bulbs have been so remark­ably suc­cess­ful because they’ve lit­er­al­ly blend­ed into the back­ground. We’re not over­whelmed by high tech­nol­o­gy. We flip that switch and we don’t real­ly think about the infra­struc­ture that makes that hap­pen. And I think the same will be true for com­put­ing in the future. Future gen­er­a­tions will think of com­put­ing as a util­i­ty, just embed­ded into out envi­ron­ment and infor­ma­tion and inter­ac­tiv­i­ty will be just avail­able on demand, like light­ing was a hun­dred years ago.

Thank you.

Further Reference

Chris Harrison’s home page.

The Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University.

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