SunLabs Research Wall
The Research Wall,
currently on display at the Sun Microsystems Executive Briefing Center, is an example of a new kind of device for reading
and presentation. This wall is approximately 10 feet long and contains
a bold graphic background running the length of the wall depicting the
history of computing services, culminating with a speculation on the
future of public utility computing. Etched into the background is a
series of timeline events in a traditional left to right arrangement.
Gliding over the top
of the graphic is a large plasma screen, which serially displays nine
episodes in the history of public utility computing. Moving the display
allows a user to interactively read details about the historical times
depicted on the background, as the episodes change and advance when the
plasma screen is pushed along its track.
The story contained
on the wall was used to communicate the story of a research effort
to the attendees of a conference on computer networks. The wall project
was funded by SunLabs, a division of Sun Microsystems, which was able
to use the wall to attract visitors and then tell a very complex and
abstract story in a small amount of booth space.
The Research Wall
is a new generation version of the Reading Wall which was first developed
by members of Onomy Labs when they were at Xerox PARC. The Reading Wall
was one of many devices we created that explored the possibilities of the
fusion of new technologies with reading and tried to look beyond the E-book.
We called our process Speculative Design, which was the idea of designing
and building artifacts for users that did not yet exist, and including within
them some technologies that were still in development at research
In order to design
speculative devices for speculative users, we needed to use a different methodology
than traditional designers would use. Capitalizing on our interdisciplinary
backgrounds, we combined the four major creative disciplines - art, design,
science, and engineering - and treated them as equal partners in the design
process. This turned out not to be easy as many creative tensions exist
among these four areas and their practitioners. However, we believe a successful
combination of these disciplines produces some of the strongest products
which are at once aesthetically pleasing, intuitive to use, technologically
advanced, and powerfully useful.
From this process,
we set some design goals for the Reading Wall and subsequently the
Research Wall. Although the interactive display is computer driven,
we wanted to eliminate any visible conventional computer accessories
such as keyboards and mice. Thus the interaction with the timeline
is completely through the physical movement of the screen on the track.
One of the consequences of this design was that the act of reading the
screen material became very intuitive and involved physical movement,
bringing the readers in touch with their environment instead of isolating
them in a virtual world of information.
Another design goal
was to keep the screen's content changes linked to the reader's physical
movements, making the experience more like reading a book. Readers
of the episodes can read the material at whatever speed they choose,
and they can move quickly forward or backward in the timeline as they
would flip through pages in a book. For the Reading Wall, this was a
useful constraint, as our intention was to explore new book alternatives.
However, as the wall design evolves, it becomes very interesting to try
ideas outside this constraint, such as asymmetric episodes, animation,
audio, two-dimensional movement, etc. It has become a new genre of media
for new authors.
The interactive walls
have proven to be an effective way of presenting and interacting with
a lot of complex information in a relatively small space. The Reading
Wall was able to present 25,000 years of the history of reading on 3
walls, while the Sun Research Wall presented the history and possible
future of a major research project in a 10 foot linear space. The wall
is one of many devices invented by Onomy Labs that explore new ways of
interaction and presentation.
A 3-minute Quicktime
video (14 Mbytes) of the Sun Interactive Research Wall in action is now available.