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Behind the Scenes: Creating Interactive Tables

Here at The Rix Centre we have been doing a bit of tinkering for our most recent project. Resident technical genius, Nick Weldin, has been working on creating an interactive table, fully responsive to touch and capable of running several different programs, a bit like a super-sized iPad.

This project, generously funded by the Rix-Thompson-Rothenberg Foundation, presented a variety of different technical challenges, especially since we were trying to create a working model as cheaply as possible. Touch screen technologies have a wide range of potential uses and benefits to people with physical and intellectual disabilities; however the cost of a table sized touch screen can be prohibitively expensive. Nick has been coming up with creative and innovative ways to create something that functionally works as a touch screen, but using only relatively cheap and readily available tools.

The second important part of making these tables work was creating a functional touch sensitivity system. In order to achieve this, we rigged some Playstation 3 cameras, which were relatively cheap but with high tracking capabilities, to be sensitive to infra-red light, which reacts to human touch. By flooding the camera with infra-red light, it was able to sense the fingertips of the people touching the table, while ignoring the brightness of the projected screen itself.

To create the screen was simple enough, but took a good bit of fiddling to get it right. At first, we used a regular projector and a large 70cm by 70cm mirror to project the screen on to the table. However, the angle was difficult to get right, and the projector needed to be a significant distance away from the table to get the size we wanted, which was not ideal. But, by using a short throw projector, we were able to use a smaller mirror, and keep the projector within a short distance from the table itself, which made the setup more easily workable, no matter what the dimensions of the room were.

We set up two tables, one at the Rix Centre to develop and fix all the different kinks, and one at the Tower Project in Tower Hamlets as a prototype for the learners to work with and offer valued input on. Many of their insights focused on making the system more accessible, such as making the table lower so that it was easier to reach. The learners also gave feedback about how they wanted the table to work with a variety of different purposes in mind, such as listening to music, playing games, or surfing the web. After a good deal of tweaking to get the table just right, and several rehearsal sessions to make sure that the learners were confident in their ability to use the table, Tower Project held an “Interactive Tables Open Session� on November 3rd 2012, where they were able to show off their new gadget to family and friends, as well as other related organizations, like Action for Kids.

The ten learners most involved in the project were able to share their experiences with it, as well as explain how the table was built and their role in creating it. Then they showed how the table actually worked, by playing with its different functions for everyone to see what the interactive table was capable of.

While the interactive table is still far from perfect, the fact that we were able to make it reliably functional at a relatively cheap price, using only open source software, shows great promise for future research and development. Specifically, this table was excellent for sensory activities involving light and sound, and lent itself easily to group collaboration, though the functionality of the table was reduced with multiple hands using it simultaneously. Developing the interactive table’s functionality with multiple users may prove fruitful, as it would allow the table be used for a variety of group-oriented projects in the future.

Behind the Scenes - Creating Interactive Tables