July 31, 2008

Article at CNN

Getting to grips with Google Earth

In the second Fantastic Four movie, a character called the Silver Surfer glides effortlessly over the Earth's terrain on a gleaming trans-galactic surfboard.

Less well-traveled beings, in the form of researchers in Germany, are now doing something similar, only using Google Earth and the Wii Balance Board.

In their project, users stand on the board, which is placed before a large-screen projection of Google Earth.

To move forward or to the side, users simply lean on the board in the corresponding direction. The sensation, say the researchers, is indeed like being the Silver Surfer on his ride.

The Balance Board, of course, was never intended for this use. It's sold by Nintendo as an accessory for the Wii console and used in skiing, fitness and other video games.

But for the researchers, the board is simply another interesting low-cost input device for enabling new user interactions, says Matthieu Deru.

Deru and his partner, Simon Bergweiler, work at the Advanced Tangible Interface Lab at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. They do all kinds of intriguing research there, but this particular project involves analyzing and interpreting the data of the Wii Balance Board and making the results usable.

The project is part of a broader trend: Innovative consumer hits, like the iPhone, Google Earth, Second Life, and the Wii remotes and accessories, are increasingly put to unexpected -- and often unauthorized -- uses by outside researchers and tinkerers.

Sometimes the experimenters combine these products. There's no shortage of examples.

The Wiimote has been put to dozens of quirky uses, from corporate training programs in Second Life to turning the human body into a musical instrument.

Such experiments will likely increase in number after Nintendo releases its upcoming MotionPlus add-on adaptor, which will help the Wiimote detect an even greater range of motions (think sword play).

The German duo are also working on an intelligent touch-screen terminal for iPhones. Place the latter on the kiosk and the phone's media files are displayed on the terminal screen. Users can then use gestures to, say, rotate or scale pictures.

Meanwhile Google Earth, though it works just fine with a regular mouse and keyboard, cries out for experimenters to devise cooler navigation techniques. After all, zooming and zipping around the planet deserves more than the same tools used for opening and closing windows.

The cry was answered partly by a new breed of mouse made specifically for navigating virtual worlds. 3D Connexion's SpaceNavigator, for instance, features a knob you can push in any direction to fly around, with your speed depending on how hard you push.

But more interesting, if less accessible, ideas have cropped up. A startup called LM3LABS, based in Tokyo and France, has created a large, floating holographic version of Google Earth whereby users can "spin" the ghostly globe and use gestures to zoom in and out on it.

Founder Nicolas Loeillot describes the experience as being far more rich and "tangible" (despite the lack of touch) than the desktop experience. Stereo vision is used to track the finger in the air.

The company is working on something similar for computers, so you can, say, point and click your way around the screen without touching anything.

Museums are interested in the globe, says Loeillot, because no learning is required: "Customers want slick and invisible technologies."

The globe set-up is not priced for consumers, though.

For Deru and Bergweiler, surfing came to mind for Google Earth once the Wii board went on sale in Europe. But after posting a video of their project online, the feedback they received made them realize their idea was merely a springboard.

Hospitals expressed an interest in the board as a rehabilitation device, where patients could do balance training after an injury.

And game ideas, of course, blossomed. Could a first-person shooter incorporate the board? A surf game?

In a popular PC-based skate-boarding game, the German duo have used the board for a "jump" feature. They've incorporated it into World of Warcraft, too, as well as Second Life.

With a semi-circular screen and 3D glasses, they note, users could be completely immersed in the virtual worlds they're surfing through.

They've also looked into putting the board to more mundane uses, such as under a desk to, say, let users scroll back and forth through a Word or PDF document. That way users wouldn't have to lean forward or reach for the keyboard to do something basic, like go to the next page.

Ergonomics specialists take note. Many a sufferer of carpal tunnel syndrome have wished for just such a feature.

What do companies like Nintendo, Apple and Google think about outside researchers taking their products in unexpected directions?

In a way, it doesn't matter. These days any company that puts out an innovative, low-cost product has to realize that once it leaves the store shelves or is downloaded, it becomes a potential new tool for tinkerers.

But whatever their official line -- frowning upon or encouraging this experimentation -- companies are well-advised to keep an eye on what the independent researchers are up to.

For the German researchers, a certain satisfaction can be had in simply knowing their project has spurred further experiments that will likely lead to yet others.

"We are pretty sure this will give new interaction ideas we have never thought about" says Deru. "That's one interesting part of our research."