Tried and true gets a new spin

In many ways, a research group at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is trying to turn the direction of people/computer interaction back to the days of pencil and paper.

The lab's Rich Interaction Environments (RIE) group is developing a tool called Rasa, a computer-augmented environment that is primarily for military command and control but could have applications in civilian agencies and businesses.

The tool enables commanders, for example, to draw on plastic overlays of paper maps or use Post-it notes to mark the positions of units in the field as they discuss the strengths and weaknesses of particular strategies. The map and its overlays are attached to a touch-sensitive digital tablet, and the notes are placed on radio-sensitive tablets. Microphones are arranged around the table to catch the participants' remarks at the planning session. The speech, drawings and movements of the people are fused to continually update an underlying digital representation of all those factors.

"Rasa might look as though it uses primitive tools, but the fact is that people can communicate very complex plans with sketches and physical maps and by interacting with each other and arguing about what outcome can be expected from a particular action," said David McGee, technology lead for the RIE group.

It's difficult to reach common ground when people are typing data into a computer, he said, but it's much easier to reach conclusions with more human interactions.

"There's something special about the way people communicate with their hands and eyes," he said.

By combining Rasa with another lab project called the Human Information Workspace, which can track the motion of hands over a digital display surface, physical interactions can be captured and shared remotely with other users.

The whole idea is to get the computer out of the interactive loop where it gets in the way of the interaction itself, McGee said, and then incrementally reintroduce it where it makes sense.

Beyond the military, Rasa could be used in such areas as medical diagnoses, where computers interfere with the interaction between a doctor and patient.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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