Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Pattie Maes invents a sixth sense

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Pattie Maes of MIT’s Media Lab wants to give you a sixth sense. You probably want it… but it’s still a little clunky right now. And requires you to wear plastic marker caps on your finger. But it’s really cool.

Maes reminds us that we pull in information about the world with our five senses, and make decisions based on this sensory input. These days, we often have an additional sense – our ability to use networked information to add to our knowledge. At TED, we’d really like the ability to meet someone and immediately Google to figure out who they are. Or at the supermarket, we’d like to overlay data about environmental and corporate responsibility on top of the products we buy. We can access this information, but it’s inconvenient and socially awkward to do so.

The solution to social awkwardness? Hang some devices around your neck and stick colored caps onto four fingers. The system includes a wearable camera, a mirror and a battery-powered projector. This allows the wearer – currently grad student and hacker Pranav Mistry – to project information onto surfaces. He’s able to manipulate this information by moving his colored fingers – they re tracked by the camera and allow Pranav to manipulate the data, driven by his mobile phone.

The system looks a bit like Jeff Han’s multitouch interface and the Microsoft Surface computing, but points out that this is a solution that works on any surface. You might use it to reframe your shopping experience, projecting a rating from Amazon onto books in books in a bookstore, or adding reviews from a favorite critic. You might enhance a newspaper with a projected video clip, or project a word cloud associated with someone onto their chest as you talked with them. And, of course, it’s trivial to project a watch on your arm.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is an exceedingly cool hack. Whether anyone will be wearing to wear it outside of the lab probably has something to do with how it’s designed, and how we construct social rules about what’s acceptable and not to enhance with information in a real-world environment. I can’t really imagine having the ability to project information onto people’s chests being socially acceptable – but I would love for it to become true.

More about the ideas behind this interface – which Maes declined to give a catchy name – at her page on “fluid interfaces“.

2 Responses to “Pattie Maes invents a sixth sense”

  1. Laurel says:

    What’s a plastic market cap?

  2. Marshall Woolner says:

    It won’t be too far off (10 years, 20?) that we will have implantable computer/communications devices. Something in the area of the mastoid (behind the ear), appropriately shielded to avoid pesky brain tumors. With sound output to our ear canal, and visual to a mini-screen that hooks onto glasses. For the very rich, eventually a hookup directly to the optic nerve. All the knowlege of the world instantaneously available. Business men at the negotiation table, diplomats, police officers, fire fighters, long-haul truckers, search and rescue, medical doctors – the list of those who would benefit would be endless.

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