Anything (yes, anything) can be interactive.

A team at Nokia in Finland has created a computer touchscreen display out of ice.

Insert joke here.

Paul Marks writes that Jyri Huopaniemi at Nokia’s research lab in Tampere, whose team built the touchscreen, dubbed Ubice, or ubiquitous ice, admits that it is not a practical device, but is seen as a step towards an era in which surfaces around us gain computing capabilities, generally referred to as ubiquitous computing.  Ubiquitous computing, also known as pervasive computing is mode of interactive in which computers become embedded in surroundings, allowing people to interact with many types of computer-generated media without using a formal computer.  “This was a playful experiment, but one that we think showed interactive computing interfaces can now be built anywhere,” said Huopaniemi.

Finland has a tradition of building snow and ice sculptures during its long winter.  It was these that inspired the device, says Antti Virolainen, a member of the Nokia team.  “We decided to see if we could make an ice sculpture that was interactive.”  The team commissioned a firm in nearby Oulu to retrieve a tone of 25-centemeter thick river ice and used a chainsaw to cut it into 50-centemeter square slabs.  They used these to make a 2-meter by 1.5 meter ice wall and then blasted the surface with a heat gun to create a smooth surface.  The team made their wall an interactive one by using digital projection technology, rather than using sensors.

The ice screen uses rear-diffused illumination (RDI).  A near-infrared light source mounted behind the “screen” bathes it in invisible light, and an array of near-infrared cameras, also behind the wall, are focused on the front surface.  A hand placed on the ice reflects the light toward the camera array and the signal each camera receives helps a nearby PC establish the hand’s position, size and motion.  The PC is also connected to a projector, which uses the data to project imagery beneath the user’s hand.

The Nokia team used flames as imagery for the test.  The result was fire and ice.

“It was -15 degrees out there so it was very interesting to show ice on fire,” says Virolainen.  “It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting with a plastic screen.”  Patric Baudisch of the University of Potsdam in Germany, who has turned toy building blocks and floors into interactive devices, says the touchscreen could be compared to Microsoft Surface, with flaws in the ice limiting the accuracy with which it can locate a user’s hand.  “But that would miss the point.  This is a wonderful piece of work and a quirky idea.”

Nokia suggests ice sculptors, or owners of ice buildings like the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, could make a feature of the technology.  “Playful experiments like this are important – people really liked it,” says Huopaniemi.  “New forms of interaction, sensing and content delivery for future mobile devices could come out of it.”

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