The human side of technology

Holograms and paper phones are a few of the brainwaves from the Queen’s Human Media Lab

Roel Vertegaal

The Queen’s Human Media Lab looks like it belongs in a different reality than the limestone building it’s housed in.

Located on the top floor of Jackson Hall, Queen’s human-computer interaction research laboratory is as innovative as it is colourful.

The crisp, white lab is coloured with loud, neon patterns of pink, green and blue. All the furniture is curved and the windows are the curvy shape of the HML logo. The lab looks like it was inspired by what the Jetsons’ thought the future might have looked like.

The facility’s design, by award-winning interior designer, Karim Rashid, isn’t even the most captivating part of the Human Media Lab (HML). The centre has been responsible for putting out cutting edge technology in human-computer interaction since 2000 when the HML was founded.

The HML caught the Internet’s attention in 2011 when PaperPhone — the world’s first computer with an interactive flexible electronic display — went viral with more than 2 million views on its YouTube video demonstration. The HML’s viral momentum continued with inventions of PaperTab — a revolutionary paper tablet computer — and ReFlex, a flexible smartphone that combines multi-touch with bend inputs.

All of these inventions that brought the HML fame belong in the field of human-computer interaction, a sub-discipline of Computer Science that Roel Vertegaal, director and founder of the HML, describes as “a mix of psychology, design, Engineering and Computer Science.”

Prior to founding the HML, Vertegaal was a professor in Holland where he found funding and research opportunities sparse, prompting him to migrate to Canada.

When Vertegaal settled at Queen’s in the late 90s, it was apparent to him that the University was lacking a lab that was MIT-styled, forward-thinking and “without questioning or being dogmatic about innovation.”

But beginning the lab in 2000 was very much an uphill battle.

“I was one professor at a school that isn’t known outside of Canada, certainly not in technology-land. How was I going to compete with MIT Media Lab?”

What would come to separate the HML from other research labs is its single-themed mindset.

“By cutting it very thin, by having a single theme and by basically advising all students to work within that theme … we as a group can own that theme and can do more work than anyone else on that one theme,” Vertegaal said.

The first theme that the HML worked with was attentive user interface (AUI), which is the concept that computers need to accommodate to the user’s attentive needs.

“There’s a balance that you need to reach as a user interface in terms of how you utilize the cognitive resources of your human,” Vertegaal said.

After putting together innovations such as eyeBox — the first eye contact sensor — the next theme for the HML was how to interact with users on a non-flat interface or an organic user interface (OUI).

“It was obvious that our computers needed to have shape … all of our software has been living in ‘flat-land,’” Vertegaal said. The professor has a tendency to add the word “land” at the end of words, like he’s positioning those ideas onto an imaginary map; technology-land, Queen’s-land, flat-land.

“We have only used two dimensions in human-computer input and human-computer output. There is a lot of opportunity there.”

Supplied by the Human Media Lab

In 2005, the OUI theme had ushered in interactive interfaces that would bring the HML viral fame, and challenge the norm of display interaction.

The interest in their demonstration videos have attracted more funding and attention, Vertegaal said, which, overall, has created a better environment for Queen’s students.

“If I can reach a million people with my work, that has an educational function. That is well beyond what I can do in a classroom with 30 people there or at a conference with 200 people in the audience if I’m lucky.”

With out-of-the-box inventions such as a flexible phone or a computer made of paper, how does the HML decide which projects or ideas they were going to pursue? For Vertegaal, the lab simply does the obvious — simple solutions to obvious problems.

“Only the Elon Musks of the world do the obvious — like solar roof tiles that actually look like rooftops.”

Vertegaal will also tell you that most tech inventions aren’t as revolutionary as they seem, nor are they invented by Apple.

“We always say that technology speeds up so much and it’s so fast. For me, predicting the next trend is as easy as going back 20 years ago and seeing what people were doing.”

“Apple came out with a touch bar on their MacBooks this week, a student of mine was working on exactly that prototype with Microsoft three years ago.”

It’s these students of Vertegaal’s that are the driving force behind the HML — with it’s staff being primarily postdocs or masters students.

“I started hiring my own students from our own department because we have one of the best computer science programs
in Canada.”

The next theme for the HML? Exploring holograms and other 3D technology.

In May, the HML premiered HoloFlex — a flexible smartphone that creates an equipment-free interaction with 3D video. Opposed to the notion of virtual reality that requires equipment to bring users into a removed, augmented reality, the HML is now looking into exploring technologies that operate in a “real reality” where the users can interact with holograms, for example, without additional aids.

The idea for holograms as a theme was inspired by the eyesight of a fly.

“Flies see a lot better than us; they see every incoming angle of light, not just the projection of the angle onto the retina. So that means they actually have holographic vision,” Vertegaal said.

Following the new theme of hologram technology, the HML is currently building light-field cameras and smartphones that have a “fly’s eye projection.”

In an overarching goal, Vertegaal said what the HML is trying to build are systems that live in the real world and technology that understands the human psychology and is respectful of its users.

“Where the human doesn’t need to adapt to the technology, but where the technology will adapt to the human and lives in the human environment.”

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