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Rhode Island School of Design Students Experiment with gspeak, a Groundbreaking Digital Environment by Oblong Industries


Art + Design Students Develop New Ways of Using and Interpreting the Next-Generation User Interface From Their Unique Perspective  

PROVIDENCE, RI – May 2009 – Graduate students at Rhode Island School of Design [RISD] have spent spring semester experimenting with new ways to interact with digital information via a state‐of‐the‐art spatial environment called gspeak, a groundbreaking 3D user interface that combines cameras, projectors and special‐purpose gloves.

The g‐speak platform is being developed by Oblong Industries, which approached RISD about betatesting it with art and design students. As the world’s first spatial operating environment [SOE], it is expected to be the next‐generation of human‐to‐machine interface. In recognizing human gestures, gspeak translates movements into high‐fidelity input, allowing users to simply move and gesture
naturally to operate a computer without using a keyboard or mouse. One of the first in use, Oblong
generously donated and installed the environment at RISD, along with USC and MIT, to put it in the
hands and minds of these especially open‐minded thinkers.

“Starting in academia, passing through popular cinema, and now here in the real world, the SOE’s ideas today seem logical and even necessary,” said John Underkoffler, Oblong’s Chief Scientist. “But we’re as concerned with design and humanist principles as with programming. Synthesizing these concerns is the only way to insure that the metamorphosis of human‐computer interaction we offer the world will be one of beauty and durable worth. That’s why we came to RISD: these young thinkers aren’t hampered by old 20th‐century ways of thinking, and we expect – and are already seeing – that they will come up with forms, systems, and designs beyond what Oblong alone can imagine.”

Oblong sees the combination of these breakthroughs as key to changing the way humans will work with computers in the future. With that in mind, the company invited RISD students to humanize technology by using the platform to design applications relevant to their fields. Through the studio “Embodied Computation: Design for Fashion, Information and the Body,” led by instructor Amber Frid‐Jimenez, graduate students from disciplines such as textiles, architecture and graphic design experimented with g‐speak in an art and design environment for the first time, using their bodies and the language of gesture to sculpt digital information.

“Engaging the dynamic information that defines our networked lives is an important part of using
advanced technology to create meaningful experiences,” said Frid‐Jimenez. “This semester students at RISD are creating objects and wearable technology for g‐speak that envisions how humans can interact with digital information in physical space. RISD is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this new research area. As students from diverse creative backgrounds collaborate with artists, architects, and designers, they apply their skills and knowledge to shape the future of embodied information.”

“This initial semester was about rethinking the next‐generation design model for physically interacting with computers and information, going beyond traditional keyboard and mouse,” said RISD graduate student and Frid‐Jimenez’s research assistant, Kate Hollenbach [’11 Graphic Design]. “The ideological framing drew from theories and practice in new media, cybernetics, phenomenology, information design, film, art and fashion. We then developed a project that explored how to design in a 3D gestural space and communicate with the computer in a more human and less digital way. By pushing the expressiveness of 3D virtual space as a medium and developing a series of interactive and reactive sketches, we saw not just what was technically possible using the system, but emotionally possible.”

Frid‐Jimenez and Hollenbach led a team of students including Er‐ti Chen [’09 BArch], Ruth Fore [’09 Furniture Design], Nami Minaki [’10 Textiles], Marcos Ojeda [’10 Graphic Design] and Mariel Taveras [’09 Furniture Design]. Some of the projects developed this semester include creative applications, physical props, bodywear, and a screen system for storing digital patterns – all in service of helping the designer in the process of developing 3D drawings, patterns, and textiles. By conceptualizing and programming, users can create gestures for any command they wish. One gesture created through the RISD studio consists of a Cleopatra‐like pose, with one hand oriented palm facing up, and the other, facing down. Another designer created a gesture that resembles the opening stance of the “tango.” Both of these gestures translate to “unlock my personal account” in digital terms, and in this intuitive fashion, the users have identified themselves to the system.

Since the g‐speak SOE recognizes real space, users can interact directly with any walls or surfaces in the room. The system of cameras in a g‐speak installation reads uniquely generated tags in the room, or more specifically, on the backs of gloves worn by the user. When gloved, users can manipulate information with programmable gestures and invite others users to join the SOE as well. Anything on screen can be manipulated directly, which represents the first major step forward in computer interface design since 1984.

Some of the core ideas behind SOEs are already familiar from films like Minority Report, where characters performed forensic analysis using large‐scale, gesturally‐driven displays. The similarity is no coincidence: Underkoffler served as science advisor on the film and based the design of those scenes on his earlier work developing an SOE as a student at the MIT Media Lab.

“RISD students offer an amazingly unique perspective for the possibilities of the g‐speak system, imagining in ways most people can’t fathom,” agreed RISD President John Maeda, who was classmates with Underkoffler at the MIT Media Lab. “The world has become over‐technologized, and the pendulum is swinging back to humanity, to the handmade. In donating the system to RISD, Oblong saw how its technology can become more accessible, emotional, and usable in the hands of artists and designers.

The typical way to develop applications for a system like this is through programming algorithms. RISD is developing applications with beautiful fabrics, through dance‐like movements, through rhythm. These are things that people can relate to. It’s a system that is perfectly suited to how RISD students manipulate the world – using their hands.”

About Rhode Island School of Design
Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has earned a worldwide reputation as the preeminent art and design college in the country. Today, with more than 26,000 alumni, the college enrolls 1,926
undergraduates and 426 graduate students from the United States and almost 50 countries, offering degree programs in the fine arts, architecture, and design disciplines, and art education. Academic
programs include research and design initiatives, the exploration of art criticism and contemporary cultural concerns, as well as international exchange programs. Each year, RISD hosts prominent and
accomplished artists, critics, and authors to its campus. Included within the college is The RISD Museum of Art, which houses a world‐class collection of art objects from Ancient Egypt, Greece, and
Rome and art of all periods from Asia, Europe and the Americas, as well as the latest in contemporary art. For more information, visit or

About Oblong Industries
Oblong Industries is the developer of the g‐speak spatial operating environment. With its combination of gestural input, recombinant networking, and real‐world pixels, the g‐speak platform offers the first
major step in computer interface since 1984. Oblong delivers room‐sized and single‐user g‐speak environments as turnkey products, and works closely with partners to develop and deliver applications and integrated solutions that are in use today in business, government and academia. For more information, visit

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The façade of the Chace Center, a new multipurpose hub that opened
in 2008, offers an interesting contrast to the historic campus
buildings that surround it.