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Notes from a talk about DiamondTouch

I went to another University of Colorado computer science colloquium last week, covering Selected HCI Research at MERL Technology Laboratory. I’ve blogged about some of the talks I’ve attended in the past.

This talk was largely about the DiamondTouch, but an overview of Mitsubishi Electronic Research Laboratories was also given. The DiamondTouch is essentially a tablet PC writ large–you interact through a touch screen. The biggest twist is that the touch screen can actually differentiate users, based on electrical impulses (you sit on special pads which, I believe, generate the needed electrical signatures). To see the DiamondTouch in action, check out this YouTube movie showing a user playing World Of Warcraft on a DiamondTouch. (For more on YouTube licensing, check out the latest Cringely column.)

What follows are my loosely edited notes from the talk by Kent Wittenburg and Kathy Ryall.


First, from Kent Wittenburg, one of the directors of the lab:

MERL is a research lab. They don’t do pure research–each year they have a numeric goal of business impacts. Such impacts can be a standards contribution, a product, or a feature in a product. They are associated with Mitsubishi Electric (not the car company).

Five areas of focus:

  • Computer vision–2D/3D face detection, object tracking
  • Sensor and data–indoor networks, audio classification
  • Digital Communication–UWB, mesh networking, ZigBee
  • Digital Video–MPEG encoding, highlights detection, H.264. Interesting anecdote–realtime video processing is hard, but audio processing can be easier, so they used audio processing to find highlights (GOAL!!!!!!!!!!!!) in sporting videos. This technology is currently in a product distributed in Japan.
  • Off the Desktop technologies–touch, speech, multiple display calibration, font technologies (some included in Flash 8 ), spoken queries

The lab tends to have a range of time lines–37% long term, 47% medium and 16% short term. I think that “long term” is greater than 5 years, and “short term” is less than 2 years, but I’m not positive.

Next, from Kathy Ryall, who declared she was a software person, and was focusing on the DiamondTouch technology.

The DiamondTouch is multiple user, multi touch, and can distinguish users. You can touch with different fingers. The screen is debris tolerant–you can set things on it, or spill stuff on it and it continues to work. The DiamondTouch has legacy support, where hand gestures and pokes are interpreted as mouse clicks. The folks at MERL (and other places) are still working on interaction standards for the screen. The DiamondTouch has a richer interaction than the mouse, because you can use multi finger gestures and pen and finger (multi device) interaction. It’s a whole new user interface, especially when you consider that there are multiple users touching it at one time–it can be used as a shared communal space; you can pass documents around with hand gestures, etc.

It is a USB device that should just plug in and work. There are commercial developer kits available. These are available in C++, C, Java, Active X. There’s also a Flash library for creating rapid prototype applications. DiamondSpin is an open source java interface to some of the DiamondTouch capabilities. The folks at MERL are also involved right now in wrapping other APIs for the DiamondTouch.

There are two sizes of DiamondTouch–81 and 107 (I think those are the diagonal measurements). One of these tables costs around $10,000, so it seems limited to large companies and universities for a while. MERL is also working on DiamondSpace, which extends the DiamondTouch technology to walls, laptops, etc.

[end of notes]

It’s a fascinating technology–I’m not quite sure how I’d use it as a PC replacement, but I could see it (once the cost is more reasonable) but I could see it as a bulletin board replacement. Applications that might benefit from multiple user interaction and a larger screen (larger in size, but not in resolution, I believe), like drafting and gaming, would be natural for this technology too.