Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=186022
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 7:07:35 AM CST
The Electronic Visualization Laboratory at University of Illinois at Chicago, looks more like a warehouse than a 20th Century Fox studio, but the devices created there seem to be straight out of a Stephen Spielberg film.
OmegaDesk is a prime example. This tech-driven workspace uses active 3D, touchscreen, infrared motion capture and Microsoft Kinect technologies combined with a custom software system called OmegaLib that unites the individual elements, according to Dennis Chau and Alessandro Febretti, UIC graduate students at EVL.
The operator sees objects in 3D and the sensors use head tracking to adjust the image based on the person’s location to shift his or her perspective. Additionally the Kinect technology allows users to move and manipulate the 3D image using their hands in the space in front of the machine.
This futuristic workstation was developed in the summer of 2009 and upgraded to its current system in spring 2011.
It may sound familiar, as EVL researchers said people frequently compare OmegaDesk to the movie “Minority Report." In the film Tom Cruise’s character uses specialized gloves to manipulate computer images on a glass wall several feet in front of him.
Chau said he could see the similarity, but that OmegaDesk is designed to be more practical than the system portrayed in the film.
“People think ‘Minority Report’ is cool, but it gets tiring to stand and wave your arms around all day,“ Chau said. “We want it to be intuitive, but not fatigue inducing.”
Febretti said a long-term goal is for this technology to be commonplace in offices. He pictures workers using something like OmegaDesk instead of a standard desk, computer and mouse.
“You can see images in 3D and share 3D models with people next to you or across the company on the same exact device,“ Febretti said.
Maxine Brown, associate director of EVL, said the scene in “Avatar,” where characters are looking at a 3D hologram of a battlefield, reflects ideas for the OmegaDesk. "We were pleasantly surprised to see our original concept for OmegaDesk appearing in an opening scene."
She said the current OmegaDesk technology isn’t at that level yet, but that it is more advanced than what is commercially available.
“It will be a unique device,” she said. “We’ve commercialized a few of our devices in the past. I don’t know if OmegaDesk will take off, but for the most part we’ve had success in replicating our products.”
Brown said the researchers prefer to use existing technologies and integrate them in new and novel ways, but occasionally they have to build things from scratch.
“Sometimes we’ve had to build little gizmos that didn’t exist,” she said “Wii-mote didn’t exist in the 90’s, so we built it. It’s part of our history to develop instrumentation for scientists.”
That hands-on environment is part of what attracted both Chau and Febretti to EVL.
Chau’s parents encouraged him to pursue science and he began programming in high school, although his original career path was medicine. He had a year off while applying for medical schools and decided to finish his computer science degree in the meantime.
He decided in the long run that programming would be more fun and rewarding. “This program is kind of like creating,” he said. “You create your own little world sometimes. You can’t do that with medicine. “
Febretti began programming when he was 7 years old. His dad taught him, and he continued programming as a hobby because he enjoyed it. “Back then I didn’t even think about a place like EVL, mostly because we didn’t have a place like this in Italy,” he said.
Febretti came to UIC in 2006 through a joint program with Politecnico di Milano in Italy. He said he took a few classes and immediately loved it. “I really consider myself lucky, he said. “It feels great to be able to follow your passions in life, to be able to do what you really want to do.“
The next step for Chau, Febretti and OmegaDesk is to continue experimenting with human-computer interaction and find the best hardware and software to create a holistic, intuitive workstation.