Innovation

Next-gen light bulb could turn any surface into a computer screen, as envisioned by CMU professor

Imagine a light bulb that instead of emitting just light, can also emit information. The mastermind behind it, CMU professor Chris Harrison, explained the concept to TechRepublic.

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Chris Harrison, CMU assistant professor, has created a light bulb that turns any nearby surface into a computer desktop.
Image: Chris Harrison
As it turns out, the art of glass blowing and computer science have a lot in common. At least, to Chris Harrison, Ph.D., 31, an assistant professor of Human-Computer Interaction at the highly lauded Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science.

"I always thought computer science was a boring, sit-in-a-cubicle kind of job," Harrison said. Despite his worries, his love of science and technology resulted in him choosing computer science as his major for both his bachelor's and master's degrees at New York University. He said he'd go to computer science classes, and then glass blowing classes and then head over to classes on algorithms.

"I had a strong interest in design and the arts. I got to fuse my interest in design and art and computers into this field of computer interaction," he said.

Harrison has been working at CMU for two years, where he received his Ph.D. in human computer interaction and where he directs the Future Interfaces Group. His lab creates innovative sensing and interface technologies that foster powerful and natural interactions between humans and computers. As computers grow smaller and more powerful, so do the screens on which a person can interact with the device.

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Robert Xiao demonstrates how any surface can be turned into a computer desktop.
Image: Chris Harrison

Harrison describes human computer interaction as "a new and emerging field that specializes in building interactive technologies to make humans more powerful, fluid and capable with computers."

By keeping art as one of his focal points, he was able to consider the human experience in his work in technology. "I think that pairing is what put me on the course I am today. I discovered by chance that that discipline existed," he said.

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His desire to improve the user experience with computers has led him to create a light bulb that can turn any surface into an app-enabled computer. It can literally turn a physical desktop into a desktop computer.

"We're building light bulb 2.0, but instead of emitting light, which has been good for 130 years, it's going to emit information," Harrison said, adding that the light bulb is 3 to 5 years away from being available to consumers in order to get the cost down to an affordable price point.

The light bulb can be used in any fixture to expand the immediate area into a computer. "It's a projector and a computer. It's not unlike a smartphone, but we've taken out the screen. We don't even need a battery," he explained.

"The idea is you can take your office desk lamp and screw in an info bulb. And the protons would hit your surface. We can project interactive applications onto your tabletop and it can read the information on it, and find relevant keywords. It can do a Google search, it can tag it. Even a written note, it can superimpose on the note to check your spelling, check your math, and augment the world," he said.

"The light bulb is such a remarkable technology that we don't think much of it. The fact that we can now reinvent that appliance is sort of a real exciting application. Our notion of computing has existed in little 2D rectangular boxes. We haven't seen the modality where computing can escape onto the world. And only by escaping can you really augment it. There are very few examples where computers spill out onto the world. That's a divide that we're hoping to break in the near future."

One of the benefits is using a light bulb as a computer extension is that everyone already has light bulbs in their house or office, eliminating the need to run new wires.

It also enhances the social experience, by allowing the user to share their computer with a group, as opposed to smart glasses, that detract from the social experience. "You don't want anything that intrudes on the social norm. At least not yet," he said.

He's experimented a lot with wearables that project onto your body. But many people weren't interested in wearing something that looked so strange. "Obviously wearing it on the body looks a little nerdy. Even at CMU, which is a little geeky, you'd be getting stares."

With the light bulb, you can inject it and embed it into the environment at the same time. "You can share your laptop screen and people can sit around and interact simultaneously."

The projects being developed at his CMU department aren't limited to light bulbs. Other projects he's working on include building new sensors and sensing schemes, and raw sensing modalities. And his work is garnering attention. He has been named one of the top 30 scientists under 30 by Forbes, a top 35 innovator under 35 by MIT Technology Review, and one of six innovators to watch in 2013 by Smithsonian.

And what's next?

"We're working on being able to do arbitrary touch sensing. We're getting close to making a sofa a touchscreen."

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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