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A System And Method For Prototyping Distributed Physical-Digital Interfaces Disclosure Number: IPCOM000204392D
Publication Date: 2011-Feb-23

Publishing Venue

The Prior Art Database


Developers with little distributed programming experience and no hardware engineering background have difficulty building prototypes that can quickly test physical-digital interfaces. With increasing numbers of networked, digital devices, there is both the opportunity and the challenge to develop new, distributed, physical-digital interfaces. But for developers with little distributed programming experience and no hardware engineering background, exploring this physical-digital domain can be difficult and frustrating. This disclosure describes a Toolkit designed to help developers easily add quickly prototype network-enabled devices with physical-digital interfaces. The hardware component allows developers to plug in multiple sensors and actuators from an extensible set of "tools" in the Toolkit. The software component supports distributed computing through a very straightforward Application Programmer’s Interface (API). Developers create spaces on the network and populate them with active objects such as virtual sensors. Other applications can react to changes issued from these objects. The combination of the easy-to-use hardware and software components allows developers to quickly distribute and connect sensors and actuators. This disclosure describes the hardware system and software architecture, presents several "examplets", and discusses future work.

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A System And Method For Prototyping Distributed Physical -Digital Interfaces


A rapid evolution in network-enabled devices is underway, in which the devices do not fit into the traditional model of single-application, single-location, single-user, desktop computing. These devices include everything from web-enabled cell phones to handheld Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), to a variety of more exotic networked appliances (e.g., digital refrigerators). Because these devices have different capabilities, task domains and environmental contexts in which they are being used, they require different user interfaces. For example, a low-


CPU-deprived, monochrome, small screen display used in a noisy environment to get email updates demands a different interface than a large-screen wall mounted display located in a

public space.

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Figure 1: An extensible Toolkit of sensors/actuators and software for active-object, network communication.

In addition to the ergonomics, environmental context and task-specific purposes defined by these devices, one must also incorporate the power of networking and distribution. Devices can work in coordination with each other (e.g., wearable devices and fixed-location appliances), as well as help people work together. People may be co-located, sharing a device, or working over larger distances and longer time spans.



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There is the opportunity and the challenge to develop new, user interfaces for distributed, networked digital devices. These interfaces can access other input/output modalities and span the network to improve the people-device interaction.

Exploring the physical-digital interface

Over the years, there has been a plethora of special-

purpose I/O devices that focus on

improving the people-device bandwidth [3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25]. The UIST 2000 best paper award went to Sensing Techniques for Mobile Interaction [9]. This work explored attaching sensors to a PDA in order to improve the overall utility of the device (e.g., turning on when picked up). Adding sensing devices helps determine context, allows for "natural and effective gestures -- the tokens that form the building blocks of the interaction design" [9], and provides alternate input channels. Similarly, actuators on devices can affect the person and the environment; using both sensors and actuators can close the interaction loop between people and devices. Distributing these devices can allow people and devices to interact over space and time. In a sense, one can turn larger and larger clusters of sensors, actuators and "smarts" into collective interaction.

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Figure 2: Recursive application of sensors and actuator "devices."

The Problems

There are several problems one faces when attempting to explore this physical-digital domain, ranging from low-level network coordination, to user...