Reminder: The Interfaces Of The Future Will Be Part Of Our Environment

Have you ever tried to cook with your tablet on the cutting board? It sounds like a great plan. And then you spill something. Or you nick it with your knife. Or your arms are elbow-deep in pork fat and you have to touch this precious glass screen that you know can be wiped clean but will also just never be the same.

It’s moments like this that makes Interactive Light so enticing. Created by argodesign, Interactive Light is a gesture-recognizing, context-aware screen that can appear on any surface, dynamically making room for digital interactions on a cramped desk or a messy kitchen counter. Open your computer, and it’s a list of new emails that you can swipe away. Stand at a game table, and it’s an air hockey game. Sit at the bar, and it’s a beer menu that allows you to order another round simply by placing your glass in the right spot. Chop at your cutting board, and it can serve as the perfect step-by-step recipe app—for the next step, simply twist a salt shaker or whatever other small object you have convenient.

The best part? It’s all just light. You can’t stain it or break it. And as you rearrange your workspace, it can move out of your way.

Interactive Light has its roots all the way back in 2010, when argodesign founder Mark Rolston and partner Jared Ficklin were at Frog. There, they created a concept called Room-E that used a Kinect motion tracking sensor, combined with a projector, to a similar effect.

“I don’t know what to say,” says Rolston, when I ask why the team has returned to the concept. After all, augmented reality systems that could accomplish similar feats—by instead floating an interface right before your eye, like Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap—are on the horizon. “We keep coming back to it. We’re not stuck on it.”

But pushed further, Rolston reveals what drives his fascination with projected light. Like many designers who are prototyping the future of interaction design, including teams from MIT and Microsoft, he has a deep-seated faith in idea that has been called, at various moments, ubiquitous computing, ambient computing, invisible computing, and tangible bits. The theory, born in the early ’90s, suggested that the things we use computers for today will eventually migrate away from our desktop PCs. Instead, these interactions will be diffused throughout our environment, meeting us wherever we go.

That’s fundamentally the opposite of what has happened, of course. Instead, we shrunk our computers. Today, we carry them with us wherever we go. Augmented reality glasses, like HoloLens, follow the same logic. One day, maybe in a decade or two, augmented reality is supposed to replace all other forms of interface. With one computer on your face, you’ll theoretically need nothing else at all.

“What we’re struggling with here is something that transcends that,” says Rolston. “Not a cheat [to the future of AR], but an alternate answer to computing in my environment.”

The big benefit of environmental computing is that you wouldn’t have to carry or wear any silly hardware. The other benefits—between what AR could do and what a smart projector could do—are admittedly harder to quantify. Looking at argodesign’s demos, however, and there’s just something warm about them. Something oddly natural.

Rolston believes a lot of this effect stems from the way light works. A screen glows with light; nothing in the natural world has the same luminance besides the sun. Meanwhile, a projector bounces light off another surface and into our eyes, illuminating information the same way we see anything else in the real world. This naturalistic effect is only magnified as our hands go to touch it.

“Projected on the wood of the table, I can rest my hands on the table,” says Rolston. “I’m not smearing them across a piece of glass that feels cold and dangerous if I push it too hard. I’ve been raised not to touch glass. Don’t touch the windows! Don’t touch the glass!”

And finally, Rolston believes there’s a real need for something like Interactive Light, if only as a complement to what’s probably the most popular ambient computer today: Amazon’s Alexa. “When I ask Alexa for a lunch menu, I don’t want to hear her spout off all the options. That’s unsustainable,” he says. “You could stick one of these under a counter, and for super-low cost you configure a solution.”

Yet the remaining challenge is significant. Sure, Interactive Light might work in one spot with some bulky hardware, but how do you scale it, throughout a home or office, so this wondrous screen just appears, anywhere you want it at any time?

“LED bulbs,” says Rolston. “Totally commodify the idea of a projector. That’s the longer-term vision of this.”