December 2, 2004 A new Australian research facility called the Visual Information Access Room (VIAR) is at the forefront of the coming revolution in human-digital interaction. The current keyboard, mouse and screen configuration will soon be replaced by digital interfaces that utilise touch, gesture and voice control and seek to integrate seamlessly into our environment. Launched by the National ICT Australia (NICTA), the Sydney laboratory looks like a futuristic office, but is in fact a test facility where sophisticated 3D models of complex systems and innovative ways to interact with complex data quickly will be developed.
Speaking at the official launch of the VIAR, NICTA's Chairman Mr Neville Roach AO said, "The world is overloaded with data. Accessing meaningful information from large data sets is becoming increasingly difficult.
"NICTA is addressing the scientific and social challenges associated with processing vast amounts of data through its use-inspired research approach to developing solutions. The economic significance of meeting this challenge is enormous, and is the driving force behind our Interfaces Machines And Graphic Environments (IMAGEN) research program."
Professor Peter Eades, NICTA Program Leader for the IMAGEN Program, said, "To derive meaningful knowledge from the data generated in the digital information age we have to change the way we interact with the information. "Presently, we access information services using a mouse, a keyboard, and a screen. In the future, we will access information through the everyday objects around us. The walls of our homes will become our screens, the arms of our armchairs will be input devices, and we will operate equipment with winks and nods. Through VIAR we are exploring a new world."
At the launch, NICTA researchers demonstrated a traffic management system where critical incident control room operators can use voice and hand gestures to rapidly call up maps, live camera feeds and other information. Operators can thus coordinate emergency responses to car accidents with the nearest police and ambulance services, all without touching the wall-sized display screen or a keyboard or mouse.
The researchers predict that such technology will provide applications where there is a requirement for quicker response times, improved accuracy of human intention, and much higher ease-of-use interfaces.
"Currently, applications read either a human gesture or use speech recognition. Through the use of signal processing and new complex algorithms we are able to fuse the recognition of the physical gestures and the voice recognition to obtain a much higher accuracy rate." said Professor Eades.
The VIAR incorporates multiple display surfaces and novel interaction devices. Some displays allow active participation by one user while others encourage collaboration between multiple users at remote locations. Others display a variety of information in a subtle yet interesting format. Some information displays take the form of smart wallpaper, presenting information on multiple interactive surfaces via computer projection.
Some of the current projects include:
NICTA views information displays as being an important part of transferring data to knowledge. Part of investigating such displays is challenging the traditional computer monitor with mouse and keyboard interface by looking for other methods to provide information and interface. The VIBall is a spherical display that looks at trying to adapt a display to the data structure, rather than trying to fit the data structure to a display. Because of the properties of a sphere, such a surface can have advantages displaying some types of information visualisations. The physically rotatable interface also aims to investigate more natural interactions with the display surface.
The human body has five senses, yet information displays are still often utilising only sight and sound to provide feedback to a user. By using a Phantom Desktop haptic device, NICTA is hoping to add a sense of feeling to information displays. By utilising more of the body's natural senses, NICTA hopes to increase the Human-Computer 'bandwidth' so that users can more effectively interact with, and understand the data presented to them.
Geomi (Geometry for Maximum Insight) is a visual analytic tool being developed by NICTA for the visualisation and analysis of large and complex networks such as social and biological systems. Such visual analytic tools involve taking advantage of the graphics capabilities of computers to support analysis of the structures of the networks. Using Geomi users can visually explore these networks and hopefully discover patterns and trends that can provide critical insights. Geomi is at the cutting edge of a new generation of visual analytic tools combining network visualisation techniques with network analysis methods.