In Pittsburgh, science gets playful

Disney Research is investigating ways to enhance the physical world with interactive technology

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Imagine: sharing a secret with a friend by touching your finger to her ear; rubbing a book's page to reveal a hidden message; feeling the texture of a mountain range on a flat computer screen; or sensing the fluttering of a digital butterfly's wings against your skin.

These fancies have been made into realities at Disney Research, Pittsburgh, one of six labs in a network. "Science at Play" is the network's tagline, and the innovative technologies coming out of Pittsburgh's lab are playful.

In fact, listening to principal research scientist Ivan Poupyrev describe his vision for an interactive environment, it's hard not to picture the scene from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" when the dishes and flatware sing and dance and exhort Belle to "Be Our Guest!"

"If you can make the entire world interactive and responsive and, in a sense, magical, that's amazing," he said. "Overall the things in the environment around us are static; they don't change unless you change them yourself physically. But once you can combine them with technology, the environment becomes living, becomes active."

Watch videos that explain the new technologies:

Mr. Poupyrev's lively imagination combines with rigorous scientific training he received in his native Russia, along with later studies and research in Japan. After eight years with Sony Computer Science Laboratories, he came to Pittsburgh in 2009 to work with Disney Research.

Today he is the director of the Interaction Group, which investigates ways to enhance the physical world with interactive technology. The researchers have developed several technologies that add richness to the physical environment.

One is called Ishin-Den-Shin, in which the human body itself is an interface. The technology was named for a Japanese expression for communicating through unspoken mutual understanding. With Ishin-Den-Shin, you speak into a microphone and your message is turned into a high-voltage, low-current inaudible signal and applied to the microphone's metallic casing. This creates a modulated electrostatic field around your body.

Then when you rub an object, the rubbing creates vibrations in the electrostatic field, and your finger and the object together form a speaker, which replays the recorded message. Rubbing an object makes the sound audible to the room, but touching someone's ear makes the sound audible only to that ear, as if the finger is whispering a secret to it.

Multiple people can hold hands and transmit the signal through their bodies, with the last person in the chain making the recorded message audible by rubbing an object or touching another person's ear. But like the children's game of telephone, the signal degrades as the message travels between more and more people.

The researchers discovered Ishin-Den-Shin by accident. They were working on a technology called REVEL, a small device that injects the human body with a weak electrical signal to affect the way objects feel when touched. No one expected that touching objects would produce sound as well as tactile sensations. "We were kind of fascinated by the fact that we can touch somebody's ear and create sound," Mr. Poupyrev said.

Another technology based on tactile sensations that the lab developed is an algorithm that allows you to feel 3-D features on a smooth touchscreen. Because your perception of actual bumps is based on the way your skin is stretched and compressed by lateral friction forces as you touch the bumps, the algorithm creates the perception of virtual bumps by using electrovibration to control the amount of friction between your fingertips and the touchscreen.

With this technology, you could feel the mountains on a topographic map on your smartphone or the contours of a digital lamp on your tablet.

Bumps and ridges, edges and protrusions are all rendered realistically. There's no difference in sensation between touching a wooden block or a marble slab, however. Because your fingers are on a touchscreen, every object feels like it is made of the same material. "In the case of food, everything tastes like chicken; here, everything feels like glass," Mr. Poupyrev said.

The tactile sensations created by Disney Research, Pittsburgh are not limited to touchscreens. With a device called AIREAL, "You can feel things against your skin without having to wear any kind of equipment or be touching any specific objects," explained Matthew Glisson, a research associate at the Pittsburgh lab.

About the size of a Polaroid camera, AIREAL forces compressed air out of a 3D-printed nozzle that is specifically designed to create vortices, or doughnut-shaped formations of air that maintain their shape and speed as they move. The nozzle can follow a user's motions, directing vortices toward specific spots. When a vortex hits your skin, the low pressure zone inside the vortex collapses, and you feel that collapse as a tap or vibration.

The researchers have demonstrated several different applications for the technology. In one, a user plays a video game where the objective is to bat away soccer balls. Mr. Glisson said, "If you block a soccer ball, then this device is tracking your hand, and when the game determines that the soccer ball would have hit you, that's when you feel a tap." So you feel the tap and then see the soccer ball flying away on screen; the addition of the tactile sensation makes the experience seem more real.

In another application, a butterfly is projected onto a user's arm, and the vortices target the same spot as the butterfly, creating the feeling of fluttering wings. If a plant takes the place of the human arm, the leaves sway as if touched by the butterfly.

Not all of the technology at the lab is high tech. Take the invention they call the paper generator: It was developed by researchers at Disney Research, Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, but it is so simple that "anyone can make it at home," Mr. Poupyrev said.

A paper generator is composed of a sheet of polytetrafluoroethylene, commonly known as Teflon, sandwiched between conductive layers such as sheets of silver-coated polyester or paper printed with conductive ink. The conductive layers act as electrodes; moving them relative to each other against the Teflon generates an electrical current that can be used to power a string of LED lights or an e-paper display.

The researchers demonstrated the technology with a series of interactive print materials, including a children's book about astronauts visiting an alien planet. On one page, the user rubs the paper generator and the letters H-E-L-L-O appear in sequence.

Disney Research, Pittsburgh's collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University on the paper generators is typical. Jessica Hodgins, vice president of research, said, "It's very important to Disney Research, Pittsburgh to be next to CMU because of our participation in the intellectual community there." In addition to her role at Disney Research, Ms. Hodgins is also a professor of robotics and computer science at CMU.

From the paper generator to AIREAL, the technologies coming out of Disney Research, Pittsburgh address different aspects of interactivity. "They seem very different," Mr. Poupyrev explained, "but actually this core idea is always the same: How can we make the physical environment around us interactive in a very lightweight, transparent and easy way?"

It's a question the researchers address every day, and one that may lead to, as Aladdin and Jasmine might say, "a whole new world."

Kathryn Sterling:

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