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Learning the Language of Gesture

Learning the Language of Gesture

If the experimental work going on in RISD’s g-speak studio feels a lot like sci-fi, it’s probably because students are working with a groundbreaking technology that’s not yet on the market. They’re exploring potential uses for a spatial operating environment (SOE) being developed by Oblong Industries, which represents the first major breakthrough in computer interface design in the past 25 years. G-speak (the “g” stands for “gestural”) enables people to use computers by moving their hands and arms like a musical conductor instead of using a keyboard, touch-screen or mouse. Oblong installed the system at RISD so that students can “come up with forms, systems and designs beyond what Oblong alone can imagine,” notes John Underkoffler, the company’s chief scientist and cofounder.

The first g-speak studios ran during the spring and fall 2009 semesters, when graduate students from Architecture, Furniture Design, Graphic Design and Textiles took part in Embodied Computation: Design for Fashion, Information and the Body. They learned to work with g-speak’s sensor-studded gloves, cameras and projectors, and developed wearable props designed to help artists and designers work more effectively in the next-generation environment.

Oblong’s own user metaphor for g-speak is that of a pilot who is essentially “flying” through the SOE, but as RISD students began experimenting with the language of gesture, they gravitated towards hand and arm movements that are more akin to drawing in space. “Gesturing creates a whole different set of reactions that go way beyond what you can do by using a mouse or through verbal commands,” notes Kate Hollenbach RISD MFA 11 GD, a research assistant for the studio.

Students developed special sleeves and props for the system that allow users to pull, stretch and otherwise manipulate words or images on the screen in response to their own movements. A Furniture Design student chose to experiment with gestures that transfer computer images to uneven surfaces on the floor instead of on a flat wall. And eager to bring a tactile softness into this high-tech environment, a Textiles major collaborated with others in the studio to create a series of hanging scrims that are sensitive to gestures within the system.

“Oblong realizes that its technology has the potential to become more accessible, emotional and usable in the hands of artists and designers,” notes RISD President John Maeda, a former classmate of Underkoffler at the MIT Media Lab. “The typical way to develop applications for a system like this is through programming algorithms. But RISD students are developing applications that involve beautiful fabrics, dance-like movements, rhythm and other things that people can relate to. G-speak is a system that is perfectly suited to how RISD students manipulate the world: by using their hands.”

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