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Shapeable 3D displays are one step closer

Tilt Display in action: This demo shows a prototype Tilt Display being used in various interactive modes. One of the four examples, 3D fixed mode, is used for collaboration: each of the two users have their own access areas of the display. This idea can be extended to larger groups by appropriately tilting portions of the display. In this instance, four people pass photos amongst themselves. Another mode, 3D movement, shows a static visual output and a dynamically changing physical configuration. Here a 2D photo of a flower slowly forms into a 3D representation. Image courtesy University of Bristol.

Today's 3D technology may leave a lot to be desired, but a new type of portable 3D display could be set to change that. Presented at the world's leading conference in human computer interaction, MobileHCI 2012, in San Francisco last week, the Tilt Display could lead to new types of interactive terrain modeling and visualizations to help geographers and urban planners.

These tablet-sized devices are a physically mutable collection of individual display components, each of which tilts along one or more axes of motion and can move vertically up and down. The research paper about this first-of-a-kind display was published in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) digital library this week.

"There are many possible applications of Tilt Displays including 3D video beyond auto-stereoscopic 3D [glasses-free 3D], and tangible gaming where the game engine can manipulate object positions on a screen by tilting screen modules. In the sciences, applications include physical information visualization and terrain modelling," says Jason Alexander, a lecturer at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University, who was involved in this research.

Although Alexander admits that the Tilt Display does have an initial novelty factor, he says humans can quickly perceive and interpret physical information faster than reading contour lines on a map for example.

The researchers posted a demonstration video of the Tilt Display's versatility on YouTube. It shows a custom-built mobile 3x3 panel prototype. A rather robotic-sounding narrator then describes how the device can be used in at least four interactive modes.

Image of a single Tilt Display module vertical construction.
A single Tilt Display module: Each module is based around a small, interlocking 3D-printed block. Each of the displays and actuators are independently configurable. Image courtesy Jason Alexander.

One of the most interesting is a '3D video mode', showing how the Tilt Display can dynamically reconfigure its physical shape automatically. During a virtual flyover of a mountainous CGI valley, several of the panels reposition themselves to represent higher points of elevation and provide height information of the terrain.

"One of our next steps is to develop an API for such displays, allowing users to simply feed a video stream, with depth information, to the display and it would take care of rendering the content appropriately. Imagine recording video using an XBox Kinect depth camera and then being able to reproduce both the visual and physical content using a Tilt Display. The Tilt Display is primarily driven by a XMOS micro-controller that uses a variant of C, called XC, for programming. Commands are issued to the micro-controller via serial communications from a PC," says Alexander.

Okay, so maybe it's not the 3D technology that you were expecting, but this device at least demonstrates the potential of combining visual feedback with multi-access tilting and actuation. At the MobileHCI 2012 international conference feedback was overwhelmingly positive according to Alexander. He says, "The prototype is clearly a long way from a product. The most difficult challenge is manufacturing devices with adequate robustness and suitable forms, requiring a multi-disciplinary effort from advanced material scientists, the manufacturing sector, and HCI researchers."

- Adrian Giordani

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