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In St. Jacobs, the future is now

Jamie Evans approaches a monitor in the corner of the room. It looks like a big-screen television, but it’s clear that there is something very different about it.

He taps the screen with his right index finger, and suddenly a three-dimensional image of the Earth appears on the screen. He taps the screen again and it zooms in on the United States.

The first-year computer science student at the University of Waterloo then places his two index fingers on the screen, and magically starts manipulating the image and zooming in until a clear view of the Empire State building appears, along with the myriad of other buildings and streets within the New York landscape.

IN TOUCH WITH TECHNOLOGY Jamie Evans, a first-year student studying computer science at the University of Waterloo, manipulates a map of New York City using just his fingertips as part of the grand opening of the new FELT Lab at Quarry Communications in St. Jacobs on Wednesday night.

It sounds like something from the future, but instead of science fiction this is science fact.

“It’s very futuristic, its cutting edge, and we’re trying to get this kind of technology into a lot of places so people can interact with it,” he says.

Evans was referring to the brand new FELT Lab, unveiled at Quarry Integrated Communications in St. Jacobs on Wednesday evening, where he and several other students were on hand to demonstrate how they are working on developing the technology of tomorrow.

FELT Lab is a state-of-the-art digital media laboratory that is teaching the next generation of
technological entrepreneurs how to design, build and commercialize interactive displays that not only meet but anticipate real-world needs. The lab got its name because its home at Quarry was once an old felt manufacturing facility.

The University of Waterloo’s Research Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) in conjunction with founding partners Christie Digital Systems Canada Inc., Intel Corporation, and Quarry, describe the lab as a “digital sandbox for serious play,” which involves gathering together some of the best minds in the academic, political, business and technological spheres to make technology more easily accessible.

Back to the screen operated by Evans, the technology was developed by a Toronto-based company called GestureTek and uses imbedded infrared cameras to “see” your fingers as you touch the screen, allowing the operator to manipulate the content with just a few finger swipes.

By changing the angle of the cameras, the user can also interact with the display without even touching the monitor.

And while the technology sounds perfect for the latest videogame or movie, it can be applied to many real-world situations as well, said Evans.

He said a company like Grand River Transit would benefit greatly from the equipment. Instead of having all of their schedules and routes on one display that cycles through in a given timeframe, Evans said he could design an application that would make finding the time and schedules of a certain bus route that much easier.

“Someone could then walk up to the screen and see the schedules, where it’s going, what the times are, and interact smoothly and quickly.”

Just a few steps away from Evans is another University of Waterloo student using a similar technology. Kelly White is a second-year student enrolled in a relatively new course called knowledge integration, an interdisciplinary course that is part of the faculty of the environment.

He is using a device similar to the screen used by Evans, only this one is called a GestureTek Cube.

It is a portable display system that projects an image onto the floor, and as he walks over it, the image interacts with his footsteps, leaving either ripples in a pond or causing fireworks to explode wherever his feet touch.

The software judges where your feet land by measuring interference with light, similar to how Evans’ screen judged where your fingers were by measuring where they interfered with the infrared camera.

White said that the technology had enormous potential in the advertising world because it could be installed in malls or in concourses and would create much more public interaction with a specific brand.

“If I’m walking and I notice my feet are interacting with an image on the floor, I’m much more likely to stop than if I see just an image on the wall,” he said.

The technology could also have practical applications in a hospital, for example, to help those requiring physical therapy to work on their walking skills in a more interactive and fun way.

All those involved in the project are excited about the possibilities and believe the lab will strengthen Waterloo Region’s reputation as a national innovation corridor. It will provide a venue for students at the University of Waterloo to gain intensive, hands-on experience that involves taking an idea from conception to creation.

“The future belongs to those who can combine design thinking with technological innovation and business entrepreneurship,” said Dave Goodwin, a professor at the Canadian Centre of Arts and Technology at the University of Waterloo and the founder of REAP.

“This is REAP’s mission: to provide University of Waterloo students with leading-edge technologies, research funding, industry mentors, and real market opportunities, and then to support them as they commercialize their innovative ideas.”

The students gave the new space rave reviews as well.

“I find it’s great because we can be here and ask ‘how will this idea work?’ and walk 10 feet to the other side of the lab and work on other projects at the same time,” said Evans.

“It’s really nice and a great work environment as well. It’s relaxed and has a real technology feel to it.”

To learn more about REAP or the FELT lab, visit http://uwreap.com/felt.

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