A futuristic playground

Human Media Lab unveils new workspace in Jackson Hall

The new Human Media ‘boutique’ laboratory was designed by Karim Rashid for Roel Vertegaal and his research students.
The new Human Media ‘boutique’ laboratory was designed by Karim Rashid for Roel Vertegaal and his research students.
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Queen’s is now home to the first-ever ‘boutique’ laboratory, featuring innovations such as a videoconferencing pod and paper-thin phones.

The $1 million futuristic project was designed for Roel Vertegaal and his team of 12 to 14 computing and engineering graduate research students.

The lab is hosted on the third floor of Jackson Hall and was unveiled to the public on May 12. Its use of visually stimulating patterns, shapes and colours combined with cutting-edge technology are meant to provide an interactive workspace for its students.

The Human Media Lab is one of several ubiquitous computing labs in Canada. Although they each possess different qualities, ubiquitous computing labs aim to integrate technology into everyday objects.

Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab and his team believe their technology will be viable in 10 to 20 years. Goodwin Hall was the original home of the Human Media Lab, but despite its functional capacities it lacked inspiration, said Vertegaal.

“We don’t like to think of our technology as 'devices.' They should be as organic and natural as if it were integrated seamlessly into our lives,” he said.

After securing the funding for the program from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, Vertegaal and Queen’s School of Computing Director, Selim Akl, set out on planning and securing construction rights.

Following the three-year blueprint process, Vertegaal said partnering with award-winning designer Karim Rashid was the obvious choice.

The lab offers an open space available for group work as well as individual work areas. Students may opt to work privately in their own focus pod, each of which is divided by opaque glass.

Noise-cancelling headsets remove visual and auditory distractions in the pod. When students wish to communicate with one another from adjoining pods, they can do so with ease.

“We used geometric orientation and eye-tracking technology to recognize when students next door to each other are initiating contact. Then the glass panes respond by changing its opacity to become transparent,” Vertegaal said.

Alex Mihailidis, director of the Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab at the University of Toronto said their university lab uses a combination of conventional and non-conventional lab environments.

Their goal is to create flexible adaptive technology that enables users with disabilities to better carry out physical tasks.

“We have the HomeLab, which is a fully functional house within our hospital so that we can easily configure different scenarios for testing,” he said.

Mihailidis said the attractiveness of the Human Media Lab sets it apart from similar technology labs in the country.

“A space such as the Human Media Lab can definitely help to attract top students and trainees,” he said.

Harry Smoak is the founding research coordinator and graduate student for the Topological Media Lab at Concordia University.

He said a more finished space wouldn’t work for his type of research because of their off-screen, hands-on approach.

“Our space is quite different, more like a cross between a workshop and theatre space with the kind of raw infrastructure where we can hang equipment from the ceiling and drill through the floors,” he said.

Smoak said the Topological Media Lab and the Human Media Lab both received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

“Although [the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s] projects are consistently geared towards the infrastructure side of research, the outcome’s going to look different from project to project.”

Lab designer Karim Rashid created the workspace by incorporating visual fluidity with curvilinear shapes. In the lab, right angles are rare, while curvy, cantilevered conference tables and pod-shaped chairs are the norm.

“It’s important for a space like this, where people are innovative, to take away those harsh angles and conventional rectangles you see virtually everywhere else,” Rashid said.

For Rashid, the shapes and lines he’s incorporated represent freedom.

The designer said he wanted to create a sense of wonder and excitement in the laboratory, inspired by the experiments conducted in the Human Media Lab.

Rashid said he wanted to create a space that would outlive short-term design trends.

“I [tried] to make a space that will always be fresh, always be inspiring many years from now,” he said. “The key really, is to design with ideas like ‘freedom’ and ‘stimulation’ in mind, and not style.”

David Holman, PhD ’12, is currently studying the use of Organic User Interfaces in the Human Media Lab.

“The new lab is pretty exciting,” he said. “This is definitely a great development for the lab and students who might get to take advantage of it in the future.”

Holman is still uncertain as to how likely the lab will be able to concretely promote creativity.

“Creativity is such a difficult thing to grasp and it’s always brought out by a bunch of things working together, never just a single criteria. I think it’s going to be exciting to wait and tell.”

Inside the Human Media Lab

Blobjects: Objects shaped like pop cans, latex spheres and cardboard boxes are turned into an interactive display, capable of playing anything available on a conventional computer screen.

Organic User Interfaces: Foldable paper computers that use hyper-thin film circuit boards to display information.

Attentive User Interfaces: Detects what users are paying attention to when multiple applications are viewed on screen. The Human Media Lab is developing a high-resolution eye tracker to track user attention from over 10 metres away.

Telehuman: Life-size hologram-like telepods that use a cylindrical display and multiple cameras to capture and track 3D video.

Digitalized board games:Settlers of Catan is revolutionized by using projected images of characters to move on the board with a computer, infrared camera and overhead projector.

— Source: Queen’s Human Media Lab

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