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Daedalus was the mythical great architect and artificer of the classical world. Today, embedded intelligence is enabling the most profound changes in the way we create and use buildings since his day.

Building Intelligence meets the Intelligent Building. The Intelligent Building negotiates with the Intelligent Grid. How will this transform how we interact with the physical world?

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Thursday
Feb212008

Feeling past today’s interfaces

I attended a talk this month on haptic interfaces and education. Haptic interfaces provide feedback by touch. A mouse or joystick may stop when it gets to a virtual wall, or become bumpy when traversing certain surfaces. I found it humorous that the talk was delivered on Valentine’s Day. Combining holiday stay-at-homes, haptic interfaces, and how a lot of internet hours are spent seemed too close to self parody.

I first saw haptic interfaces in “real life” at a Comdex a decade ago. One booth was demonstrating a vest to wear while playing whatever first person shooter was popular that year. Speakers embedded in the vest would slam the chest when firing; hits from the enemy would slam the wearer’s body with some other sub-sonics. I’ve seen temperature haptic interfaces as well. Haptic interfaces are creeping into the mainstream with the ambitious Falcon and the pervasive Wii.

The theme of the talk was that today’s college student has spent more time in immersive computer games, perhaps, than any other experience before college. Reaching back to John Dewey’s theories on experiential learning, the speaker urged departments to explore how immersive technology including haptic feedback could be used to present material. “Instruction must change to meet the expectations and learning styles of today’s students.”

The talk went on to discuss the advantages of virtual dissections with haptic feedback on each incision, as well as the difficulty in constructing a truly immersive experience. There was some discussion of helping students to better understand geographic information by tagging maps and letting students explore the space with haptic feedback. My first reaction was that the argument was amusing, but trying too hard. Then I remembered an actual project that assisted a nice new analysis of historical data from several years back.

More than five years ago, Jason Morris applied to the graduate program in classics to work with Carolina’s renounced collection of maps of the ancient and classical world. The Jason wished to explore some aspects of Roman military command structure. He wanted to use the detailed maps, including how Roman military camps were re-located over time, and their interaction with roads and the physical geography. An interesting if unexceptional graduate thesis in the making, except for the important detail that Jason Morris was blind.

Skipping over many details, the Ancient World Mapping Center devised a system whereby Jason student could move an optical mouse over the maps. Distinctive sounds were produced when the mouse was over roads (galloping horses), rivers (rushing water), and so on. The student developed a model for how much authority and autonomy each commander in the field had based upon contemporary writings and the travel time between camps, whether for messengers or for reinforcements. The interface was not silly, but useful, and the basis for some good work.

Most interfaces to building systems are remarkably unimaginative and low tech. Static JPEG images with floating numbers above them are as good as it usually gets. These interfaces are nice to close the sale, to show management. In practice, they are so clunky and uninformative that real life technicians usually spun them to look at screens of tabular data.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. When they leave school comfortable with the virtual world, they will expect what they have learned. Even engineering students today are spending as much time exploring virtual models as they are with pen and calculator. Today’s system interfaces will be considered hokey at best, inadequate at worst.

Tomorrow challenges are more complex and more abstract. Dynamic coordination and choreography of multiple systems is a tougher problem than simple operation of a monolithic system. Systems will need to interact with engineered systems from different domains as well as un-engineered systems. While the expectations of performance will be greater, performance will be driven by economic signals and interactions with the business processes of the enterprise.

Are haptic interfaces parts of the solution?

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