Exploring Inspace

The University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics is investigating human interaction with interfaces and technology by studying behaviour in its public laboratory Inspace. Anna Mitchell explores the installation with integrator Electrosonic and the University’s Professor Oberlander.

Nestled amongst the varied collection of buildings that makes up the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics sits Inspace; a laboratory dedicated to the exploration of information access and the relationship that humans have with new media. The space is white and clean, maybe even clinical. Other than that you probably wouldn’t associate it with any traditional conception of a typical laboratory.

Walk past the building’s tall imposing windows at night and you’ll often be treated to rear projections that spill the laboratory’s work out into the street. These regularly carry an interactive element turning passers by into research subjects. Inspace also hosts regular film screenings, musical events, workshops and speeches. At these times the space seems more akin to an arts centre, gallery, cinema or studio.

Despite its many faces Inspace, a joint research partnership between the School of Informatics and New Media Scotland, is still a laboratory and is used by the faculty’s students for their projects, research and observations.

Informatics looks at the various ways information is transformed and transferred. The department, which encompasses artificial intelligence, cognitive science and computer science, says it aims to enable technological advances through gaining a better understanding of “informational phenomena” such as computation, cognition and communication.

The laboratory is designed to help further this understanding. As such the space had to offer the flexibility needed to accommodate the wide ranging uses various research projects demanded. Furthermore the department required a system that it could adapt, add to and above all was open enough for them to use it to a high technical level. More often than not integrators must deliver quite the opposite. Users will demand a system that unskilled staff have limited access to. Required functions have to be performed with simple commands and understandable interfaces. So how did the integrator Electrosonic, meet this challenge?

James Sharp, sales engineer at Electrosonic’s Edinburgh office, handled the installation and stressed the critical need for a robust network infrastructure, capable handling the varying demands that university staff would place on it. “The whole system is based on an Extron Cat5 network,” he explained. “All projectors have Extron twisted pair receivers that allow connection to a multitude of AV network ports within the space, allowing the projectors to be moved around as required. The team at Informatics are highly technically competent and like to try different system configurations, so the system was designed to provide the flexibility they require.”

Electrosonic installed a total of eight Panasonic projectors at Inspace and mounted them using Unicol ceiling brackets. Seven 4,000 ANSI XGA models point at motorised drop-down rear projection screens behind windows on one side of the building. A flight of stairs that doubles as a tiered seating arrangement leads down to where the final 7000 ANSI SXGA+ projector fires onto a large white painted internal wall.

Jon Oberlander, Professor of Epistemics in the University of Edinburgh's School of Informatics and a figure instrumental in the construction of Inspace, explains that the lower area is used to host regular film screenings. He adds that every screening is supplemented with additional contributions that often serve to encourage some sort of interaction and transform the experience of watching.

In the screening area a 5.1 audio system based around Denon and Kef equipment provides great immersive sound for film viewing. The system is unobtrusive with loudspeakers recessed into walls and a subwoofer secreted beneath the stair/seating area. The system allows s/pdif to be sent over Cat5 from any network point to the 5.1 audio system. Alongside the film screenings, talks and workshops; the space also houses musical events where musicians invariably bring their own sound equipment.

An additional four Kef and two Apart loudspeakers serve the raised areas where the row of Panasonic projectors reside. Individual volume control is provided for each channel and a Denon processor and Apart multichannel amp power the system.

Pufferfish, an Edinburgh based company that specialises in 360° spherical display systems, was involved during the original build. Inspace houses a Puffersphere XL model with a HardBall measuring 90cm and two inflatable spheres measuring 1.6 and 2m. The inflatable spheres are best used for evening events when they create a great impact running the massive variety of content created by artists, researchers and staff that use the space. The HardBall appears stunning at night but also proves an effective tool in daylight and boasts touch functionality.

“The Pufferfish solution serves to show us true multitouch,” notes Oberlander. “We’ve noticed that as people stand around the sphere they’re obscured from view by other users. They will all interact with the device at the same time. It’s very different to other multitouch devices, even large solutions such as those based on Microsoft Surface, where we’ve observed that users tend to let each other take turns.”

An Extron MTPX Plus twisted pair matrix handles all switching and routing of PC video and audio sources. As Sharp noted earlier, each projector has its own receiver to receive distributed video. Not only can Inspace users move the receivers around; they can also – and indeed already do – purchase additional receivers as needed. Eight transmitters were supplied to allow PCs to supply AV signals to the system from any local network cable point. In addition local PCs can feed the matrix directly and a Kramer scaler allows use of non-RGBHV sources.

As Sharp sums up: “In essence, any audio signal can be fed to any of the six loudspeakers or the 5.1 system. Any video signal can be sent to any projector. Full routing and switching control of both audio and video is provided via the control system.”

The original installation provided Inspace with a Beyerdynamic Opus 150 Mk2 wireless lavalier microphone kit and more recently additional Beyerdynamic 600 series radio microphone kits. Automatic feedback elimination is handled by DBX and Electrosonic has also provided an Audiotechnica automatic microphone mixer.

On the control system side an AMX system with a 10” wired touch panel resides in the rack room and all commands correspond to a patch panel in the rack. Electrosonic has also provided Inspace with wireless html control to allow control of the system from inside the exhibition space. Sharp adds that, in order to allow programmers to incorporate control of the AV hardware into creative projects, Electrosonic provided an API for the AMX system which allows for control of all key parameters, including switching and routing of AV and power control of all elements including projectors, screens and blinds. All equipment in the rack is protected with Furman sequenced power management.

Sharp and the Electrosonic team have effectively created an infrastructure that allows Inspace to plug in a massive variety of sources and play out content in a variety of ways. “We’ve designed for flexibility,” explains Sharp. “This gives the department the chance to move on. It’s a truly flexible space. Inspace challenge traditional uses and like to play around with things.

“From the start it was clear we had to provide a flexible system and it required some clever solutions,” continues Sharp. “But, actually it’s easier to provide for technical users. They’re like-minded people”.

Recently, staff at Inspace rigged up a mirror system to allow the projectors, which usually fire onto the rear projection screens, to point down to a table below them. A recent project utilised this adaptation to project down onto a skeleton – giving the illusion of flesh and clothes on the bones.

There are numerous examples of where Oberlander, his students and his colleagues adapt and manipulate the space to meet their needs. As part of this, Oberlander points out that Inspace is designed to be a public space and a massive part of the work done in the laboratory studies interactions and the dissemination of knowledge. Recently Oberlander has had his eye on a large bus queue that regularly forms right opposite the windows that display the content from the Panasonic projectors and says a future project will look to target these waiting students.

Research often focuses on watching how people interact with the technology in the space and investigating how to make spaces responsive. A High End Systems DL3 steerable projector, which can connect to a Extron matrix output with one of the additional Cat5 receivers, is often used to provide interaction, following and responding to users’ actions. Oberlander cites a recent project carried out by research associate Jochen Ehnes.

Ehnes used the steerable projector to create virtual characters that interact with people through speech using a multimodal dialogue management system that includes both speech recognition and speech synthesis. Ehnes’ aim is to “investigate whether projected virtual characters can facilitate information exchange and provide an improved quality of interaction compared with other approaches to interaction (compared with no focus, or a mobile device), whether two (or more) virtual characters result in improved interaction, and the social presence of projected virtual characters in relation to their modality and persona in the overall context.”

The research project is one of many but serves as a useful example of how the AV kit within Inspace is vital and central to the University’s work. Other projects have used motion tracking devices, including Ladybug cameras, to monitor where people gather and reward them for grouping together. Displays are used as responses and reward with information or entertainment.

In another project Chris Speed, from the Edinburgh College of Art, projected a number of tiles for an audience to view. Using quick response codes (found on the cushions that viewers sat on) each member of the audience could flip the tiles to show video content. If the audience collaborated and agreed the tiles would group together to show larger films. If each member chose to flip different tiles then the numerous videos would make up the projected space.

These projects demonstrate that Inspace is a laboratory that is open to the public partly for the purpose of studying them. The observations are scientific and often utilise sophisticated equipment to track movements, actions and dwell times with sensors to capture detailed data. Previous projects at Inspace have used products from a company called Actual Analytics which has its roots in creating systems to track rats in experiments. This underlines the fact that the public entering Inspace are subjects in the laboratory experiments.

Inspace was designed as a fluid, flexible space and indeed it’s still growing. Oberlander explains for a forthcoming project and LED display will have to be procured and indeed Sharp notes that his often surprised by the appearance of additional kit or adaptations on existing equipment when he revisits the installation. But that’s the beauty of the infrastructure that Sharp and the Electrosonic team have provided Inspace with. The space will continue to evolve and grow well into the future.

All images courtesy of New Media Scotland except Puffersphere (courtesy of Pufferfish)


Apart eight channel audio amplifier and SDX5T loudspeakers
Audiotechnica automatic microphone mixer
Beyrdynamic wireless lavalier microphone kit and 600 series radio mics
DBX auto feedback elimination
Denon AV preamplifier
Kef CI200.3QS and Ci130.2QS loudspeakers and HTB2SE subwoofer

AMX controller, WAP, power supply and touch panel
Extron twisted pair and stereo Rx, twisted pair matrix 16x32
Furman sequenced power management
Gefen twisted pair
High End Systems DL3 steerable projector
Kramer video scaler
Ladybug motion cameras
Panasonic PT-D4000E and PT-D7700E/ -K projectors
Pufferfish Puffersphere XL: inflatable and HardBall
Unicol projector ceiling brackets

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