The Interactive Research Wall
in use at Moscone Center.

An early design critique session.

Tests for background
materials and textures.

Engineering for the wall required tight tolerances for smooth and intuitive user interaction, but also robust construction to withstand constant hard usage by visitors.

The Onomy workspace.

Final prototype assembly phase.
The entire wall was constructed
on a very tight schedule.

Graphic production design and
content design were developed with the involvement of the entire Sun research team.

Installing the final graphic panel onsite.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy and press entourage view the Interactive Wall.

Case Study: 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 labs.

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.