Sunday, October 25, 2015

Visiting Northwestern

Last week I visited the Segal Institute of Design at Northwestern University to give a talk for a class called "Designing Product Interactions."  This course is part of the "Engineering Design and Innovation" program at NU.

To the left of my is Craig Sampson - one of the instructors of the course.  He has been involved in design, engineering, and innovation for many years, much of it as a leader at IDEO. Now he has his own independent consulting business. For much of this time he has had some relationship with Northwestern University, and in recent years the Segal Design Institute at NU has been gaining prominence, and he has gotten more involved - specifically with the graduate program Engineering Design & Innovation.

Craig Sampson is a really kind and thoughtful guy.  I really love his interpretation of my work - it has made me think quite a bit about why I do what I do, and how I can do it even better.  I also really enjoy how he runs his class - I would have loved to be in a course like this and if I ever return to school to seek another degree I would highly consider applying to this one!

To the right of me (above) is Craig Shultz, a PHD student studying Haptic Technology (I'll get back to this in a moment.)  Talking with him for just a few hours, it struck me that while he is quite tech-oriented and is clearly a genius, he has a very human, very creative and artistic side to his personality and practice. I was intrigued that while he is doing some hard research and science at the University, he still finds it crucial to maintain a creative and experimental approach to his work.

After my talk, I held a short Q&A while I showed some of my prototypes to the grad students, and let them play and explore.

Several students tried out a portable version of Pung - I was quite pleased to see that even engineers totally let loose while competitively screaming at their paddles!

After class, Shultz (I'm going to call him that since both of my hosts were named Craig) brought me to see the work he's doing in the Haptic Technology lab.  As I approached his work space, I couldn't help but notice a turntable chilling next to an oscilloscope. now I was curious...

The first thing Schultz showed me totally blew my mind.  Pictured above is a prototype (a really well-made one, too!) of a haptic touch display for a smart phone.  No, I am not talking about a vibration motor or a "rumble pad."  This is way more magical than that...

Basically, Schultz is using ultra-sonic waves, which cause the frictional glass surface to resonate or oscillate on a very small scale.  As the surface moves up and down, it creates a tiny "buffer" of air between the glass and your finger.  This acts almost as a lubricant - and essentially allows electronic control of the surface friction in real time.

What does this mean?  Well, the photo above shows an app that displays five different textures.  As I swiped my finger accross each strip, I could FEEL the different textures.  It was insane... expecially the third from the top, which literally felt like sandpaper!  But, it was a flat glass screen.  Incredible.

The next project he showed me was a similar princeple, but here instead of "lubricating" a frictional surface with ultrasonic waves, he is creating electrical fields across a surface that actually attract your finger to it.  So, still using electricity to alter the friction of a surface, but sort of the opposite strategy.

Here, voltage can lead to a dramatic increase of friction coefficient. When the external voltage is turned on and off periodically, the friction coefficient goes up and down almost synchronously.

Here, he is using anodized aluminum because it is conductive, but the surface is very resistive.

First, Shultz played a sine wave through the surface.  As you drag your finger across, you can feel (and even see) the surface periodically "gripping" your finger.  But the next part was the most magical...

Shultz noticed, at some point, that as he moved his finger around on the surface, he could hear hints of the sine wave he was playing.  Curious, he tinkered with the software and the amplifier, and played some music through the surface...

The result is truly magical.  As you move your finger accross, the change in friction in synchronous with the beat of the music. You can FEEL the music in your finger tip...

Even more amazing - you can hear it!  But the sound isn't coming from a speaker, or from the surface.  The sound actually originates from the electric field between your skin and the surface.  In order words - the surface turns your finger tips into tiny speakers!!

The next phase of Craig Shultz' research, along with some other phd students, is to create a motion system where the "attractive" surface can actually guide your fingers around on the screen - like a technological Ouija board.  I am thrilled by this research and cannot wait to see more.  I told Craig that if he ever needs a creative collaborator, I would jump all over the opportunity!

1 comment: