The world is your computer

Computing is starting to think outside the box as researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launch a “wearable gestural interface” that can turn your wrist into a watch, your hands into a photo frame or your newspaper into a TV. SixthSense comprises a pocket projector, mirror and camera – as well as some very clever software – developed by the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT’s Media Lab.

The system was unveiled at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference in Boston, April 4 – 9.

Researchers at MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group, led by Dr Pattie Maes, said the idea behind SixthSense was to create a link between our digital devices and our interactions with the physical world. The team wanted to free information from its traditional confines of paper or a digital screen.

The prototype is comprised of a pocket projector, a mirror and a camera. The hardware components are coupled in a pendant like mobile wearable device. Both the projector and the camera are connected to the mobile computing device in the user’s pocket. The projector projects visual information enabling surfaces, walls and physical objects to be used as interfaces; while the camera recognises and tracks user's hand gestures and physical objects using computer-vision based techniques. The software program processes the video stream data captured by the camera and tracks the locations of the coloured markers (visual tracking fiducials) at the tip of the user’s fingers using simple computer-vision techniques. The movements and arrangements of these fiducials are interpreted into gestures that act as interaction instructions for the projected application interfaces. The maximum number of tracked fingers is only constrained by the number of unique fiducials, thus SixthSense also supports multi-touch and multi-user interaction.

The SixthSense prototype implements several applications. The map application lets the user navigate a map displayed on a nearby surface using hand gestures, similar to gestures supported by Multi-Touch based systems, letting the user zoom in, zoom out or pan using intuitive hand movements. The drawing application lets the user draw on any surface by tracking the fingertip movements of the user’s index finger. The system is also designed to recognise a user’s freehand gestures (postures). For example, the SixthSense system implements a gestural camera that takes photos of the scene the user is looking at by detecting the ‘framing’ gesture. The user can stop by any surface or wall and flick through the photos he/she has taken. SixthSense also lets the user draw icons or symbols in the air using the movement of the index finger and recognises those symbols as interaction instructions. For example, drawing a magnifying glass symbol takes the user to the map application or drawing an ‘@’ symbol lets the user check their mail. The SixthSense system also augments physical objects the user is interacting with by projecting more information about these objects projected on them. For example, a newspaper can show live video news or dynamic information can be provided on a regular piece of paper. The gesture of drawing a circle on the user’s wrist projects an analogue watch.

The current prototype system costs approximate $350 to build.