News Column

Profile: Pushing the Boundaries of Interactive Design

August 1, 2014


Most computer interfaces today take very little advantage of our sense of touch," says James Patten, founder of the Patten Studio and inventor of futuristic user interfaces and interactive experiences. His work combines the principles of engineering, computer programming, and design to give users completely unique experiences - from creating their own chemical reactions by grabbing onto virtual elements in a periodic table, to folding a protein and having the computer physically resist the folding pattem.

Patten earned his PhD in media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Although his interest in creating user interfaces developed during his undeigrad years at the Univ. of Virginia, he was able to more fully delve into this field while pursuing his doctorate degree. "At the Media Lab, there was a stronger emphasis on design, aesthetics, and the craft of creating new interfaces," says Patten.

He founded Patten Studio in 2006 out of his living room in Cambridge, MA. After moving to Brooklyn, NY, in 2008, he established his workspace in the Metropolitan Exchange building. The building is home to a host of creative entrepreneurs - including biotechnologists, fashion designers, and software developers - that all "make things in the space between technology and design," he says. The flexible, collaborative, and chaotic nature of the space is helpful when coming up with new and creative ideas. "My Brooklyn studio is a magical place to come to work every day," notes Patten.

Patten's company aims to take advantage of our sense of touch in a multitude of ways. "Our general approach is to use physical objects to represent and control information inside the computer," says Patten. He believes that "this style of interface, called a 'tangible interface' can yield dramatically improved performance across a variety of applications."

With that in mind, he created the Sensetable, an innovative tabletop interaction platform that can track the position of electronically tagged pucks on its surface. At the same time, video projection from above the table can display graphical information upon the table and pucks.

Using the Sensetable technology, Patten designed the Create a Chemical Reaction interactive installation for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. At this permanent exhibit, guests can use the plastic pucks to "grab" certain chemical elements off of a virtual periodic table and combine them with other elements to cause chemical reactions. Whenever the right combination of elements is put together, a reaction occurs, and a video plays about the reaction or compound that was created. "The final version of the exhibit includes about 380 different reactions," says Patten. "We tried to include reactions using as many different elements from the periodic table as possible, which was a challenge."

The social aspect of this exhibit is incredibly powerful - using multiple pucks, guests can work together to combine a variety of elements and create even more interesting and explosive reactions. Rather than being strictly virtual or strictly physical, the combination of the two not only makes the exhibit intuitive and easy to use, it also helps guests get excited about science.

Patten wanted to take further advantage of our sense of touch with a tangible device that could be manipulated by both the computer and its users at the same time. He invented a tabletop interactive robotics system that is based on the manipulation of small robots on multidirectional wheels. The user can grasp the small robots, called Thumbles, and push or pull them across the tabletop touchscreen - much like a child would move a toy car across a flat surface. Simultaneously, the computer can autonomously drive the Thumbles around the table. "The result is an interface that constantly rearranges itself based on the user's needs," says Patten. Thumbles can serve as "physical knobs, dials, and other user interface elements that can be dynamically reconfigured under software control."

One application that the Thumbles are particularly suited for is modeling protein folding (shown in the image above). The Thumbles act as handles on a protein that is projected onto a tabletop. The user can simulate protein folding by moving the Thumbles in specific directions. If the protein is folded in a way that is incompatible with its molecular structure, the Thumbles pull against the motion - giving users instant physical feedback. In a way, scientists can actually feel what's going on inside of a macromolecule.

Patten plans to move the Thumbles toward commercialization in the near future. He envisions his invention being used for logistics, data visualization, emergency response, and gaming, among other things. "I'm excited about applying the interface technology we're developing to a variety of complex scientific and engineering data visualization problems," says Patten. "My dream is that someday the type of work typically done in an office won't require us to sitin front of a keyboard and screen all day."

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: Chemical Engineering Progress

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