22 December 2015

22 December: A glimpse of our future’s technology

Futuristic hardware

Imagine having a mobile device measuring 1.5 inches, or perhaps a sweater with an interactive sleeve on it. These are some of the devices that Sebastian Boring, Professor and Researcher at the Department of Computer Science, is developing on a daily basis. Being a researcher gives him the freedom to pursue new ideas and investigate what he believes will be the next generation of computers. By doing so, he hopes to break the boundaries of what can be improved with today’s hardware as well as to understand the potential of our future hardware. Perhaps he can give us some insight to what sort of devices we will find under the Christmas tree in the future.

Today's Advent Calendar researcher deals with improving interaction between humans and mobile devices. In his research, he works with two research areas: improving the interaction technique of today’s devices and creating new devices that will be market-ready in the future. This involves everything from tiny smartphones to tablets on our clothes.

Big thumbs on small screens

In his general research on mobile devices, Sebastian Boring uses what he calls "off-the-shelf commodity devices". That is, devices that we already have, but which we would like to function even better. In this case, his research focuses on how to improve interaction techniques on everything from phones, tablets and watches to wearable glasses (e.g., Google Glass). At the moment, he is working on a problem often faced with small devices, namely, the interaction between our thumb and the screen of a mobile phone:

"Often, the thumb is the only finger we use on mobile phones. For example, in a recent project, we investigated how we can leverage the thumb's contact size to allow for more expressiveness of input such as when moving or zooming on a map."

Challenge accepted

What he finds most interesting in this type of research is pushing the boundaries of today’s technology and overcoming the limits with devices we already have, without necessarily changing the device:

"This limitation is relatively challenging, and that makes it exciting, because I can push the limits of such devices further and further, and try to find the boundaries of technology."

By overcoming the limitation of the mobile devices’ inherently small screens, Sebastian Boring is pushing technology in the right direction. The research in mobile devices is directly applicable on today's devices, and could be readily built into them.

Tomorrow’s interactive sweater

The other part of his research deals with the more futuristic aspects of technology. Here, he works with another type of devices, namely "Shape-changeable devices". How is it possible to bend, stretch and crumble devices to accommodate our daily lives? In this case, Sebastian Boring is building prototypes in which he sees a potential for future displays. This could, among other things, be a sweater or another type of fabric:

"For example, one can envision interactive clothing where a sleeve of a pullover becomes a display with which we interact. To do so, I build several prototypes that investigate the potential of such displays, and I try to understand what it means when we can bend, stretch and crumple displays," Sebastian Boring explains.

He looks at the prototypical nature of new hardware in order to understand how we can create future displays on fabrics – something he thinks is similar to “hacking”. He finds it quite challenging but also satisfying to work with novel devices where the skill of building and designing is important:

"The challenge here is that new hard- and software must be designed and built, which - when it works - is absolutely rewarding."

Preparing the market for futuristic ideas

Of course, stretching a piece of ones T-shirt or sweater and making it interactive is far more futuristic and technology-driven than working with today’s devices, and it might be a while before we find these sort of gifts below the Christmas tree. But in order for them to be developed, we also need to have a thorough understanding of how they work before we present them to the market. As an example, Sebastian Boring mentions that many of the features of the iPhone were developed and researched into more than a decade before it was released on the market. Therefore, it is never too early to begin looking at the advanced possibilities that our future generation of hardware contains or gives us. Sebastian Boring’s research is therefore quite visionary:

“The shape-changeable devices will come in handy once such devices are market-ready. By reaching an understanding of the possible interactions, we can give such devices a head start”.

Perhaps it is not too early to put interactive clothing on your Christmas wish lists.