New software connects interactive displays online

Tabletop displays behave like "big iPhones," experts say.

Researchers at Purdue University and the University of Manitoba in Canada have developed an open software program that allows users to connect interactive tabletop displays over the internet, so users in two different locations can interact remotely with the same display.

Touch-operated tabletop displays are becoming popular in various fields, including entertainment, business, and homeland security—and the use of such technology for educational purposes is not far behind, says Niklas Elmqvist, an assistant professor at Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who helped develop the web-enabled version of the technology.

The tabletop displays are fairly inexpensive to build, Elmqvist says.

All that is needed is a computer with an internet connection, a computer projector, a large piece of Plexiglass—the one used by Elmqvist and his team is 58 inches by 37 inches—a camera, and infrared lights, which enable users to see when someone is touching the screen.

“They’re like big iPhones, but they’re horizontal—and they’re relatively cheap to build,” says Elmqvist, who adds that all the pieces, including the computer, can be had for a few thousand dollars.

Commercial tabletop displays, such as Microsoft Surface devices, do already exist, but they are significantly more expensive—costing as much as $15,000.

The software that enables users to connect these displays online is IP-based and can be used for real-time interactive updates, “so if someone moves a graphical object here at Purdue, the software will transmit this move to Manitoba, and they will see the object move there,” says Elmqvist.

Future iterations might allow the connecting of mobile devices as well, which could be useful in emergency situations, Elmqvist says.

For instance, firefighters might create a command center where they have a tabletop display on which they deploy their various teams across a variety of locations. The responders in the field could connect on their smart phones and see where the people in the command center are deploying them, or whatever else the commanding officer wants them to see.

The Purdue and Manitoba researchers plan to offer the technology—dubbed Hugin, for the raven in Norse mythology that acted as the eyes and ears of the god Odin—to other researchers and developers free of charge.

They expect to make the software available online at the project’s website soon.

Collaboration leads to learning

The collaborative capability of the technology, which allows a large number of people to gather around the tabletop displays in two separate locations and to interact with the content on the tabletop and with each other, is perfect for an educational environment.

“You can have several people working around the table at the same time, and you could have an instructor located somewhere else with his own tabletop,” Elmqvist says.

Schools that can’t afford to have a specialized teacher on campus, for example, could use the technology for distance learning. Other educational applications might include connecting groups of students at different universities for collaboration on a single project.

Elmqvist and his team are currently working on an educational deployment in a children’s museum in Indianapolis.

The application will be a city simulation that will allow users to move Monopoly-like pieces to build a city, complete with houses, roads, cars, people, buildings, and shopping centers, and see what happens with the environment as a result.

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