Eric Ameres ’88, EMPAC senior research engineer, and Gordon Clement ’14, EMPAC media systems integrator, have created the Campfire, a new computing interface that allows a small group of users to collaboratively consider information.

When we need to consider information as a group, most of us turn to a computer projector and a mouse. The world may be round, but our only digital option for exploring it in a meeting is on a flat screen. Surpassing that limitation—by creating new computer interfaces that allow people to intuitively share and manipulate data—would vastly expand the power of computers in collaborative decision-making situations (think business, medicine, and design).

Developing those new interfaces is one of the goals at the newly established Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory (CISL) at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. CISL is a partnership between Rensselaer and IBM Research, and one of the first tools in the lab is the Campfire.

The Campfire is a new computing interface that allows a small group of users to collaboratively consider information. The platform was developed by Eric Ameres ’88, an EMPAC senior research engineer and Rensselaer doctoral student, and Gordon Clement ’14, an EMPAC media systems integrator and Rensselaer graduate (see related story). As suggested by its name, the Campfire is a projection device shaped like a cylindrical fire pit, about six feet in diameter and two feet high. A wide rim surrounds the top of the cylinder, allowing users to gather around the Campfire and view data projected onto the walls and flat circular floor of the device. Related data sets or images can be projected onto different locations inside the Campfire, with the edge between the surfaces acting as a blending site.

The RPI News Approach blog recently spoke with Ameres and Clement:

How does the Campfire work?
The Campfire consists of two main display surfaces, its “wall” and “floor.” While they can be largely independent, their shared edge provides a natural interface for various dimensions of visualization, simulation, and interaction. Any traditional two-dimensional images and applications can be placed on the surfaces, but a key innovation is that each of the surfaces has one continuous, potentially shared, dimension. Information can be wrapped around the campfire as in the rings of a tree, the spokes of a wheel, or even in a panoramic view of a real or virtual landscape. The wall can be used to dive into data shown on the floor and vice versa.

What makes the Campfire a collaborative tool?
Because of the way that you’re arranged, you immediately feel like you’re engaged in the same content. Multiple people can be looking at the same thing, and at any point, I can look up and see your eyes and see where you’re looking. It may sound trivial, but being able to observe someone else’s attention is something we do as humans all the time, and is central to collaboration.

What uses can you envision for the Campfire?
We can imagine two categories of applications for the Campfire. The first is simulation—if you want to look at real objects, or if you want to explore a geometric space, you can project it within the Campfire. The second is data visualization, and here we’re still scratching the surface. What can we do with big, highly complex data? For example, we have found bioinformatics research that uses circular data visualization techniques. Those techniques might be well suited to the three-dimensional pseudo-volumetric nature of the screen. The key is that typically we think of data as a square peg, and now we have a round hole to play with, so what kind of data is suited to a round hole?

How did you come to develop the Campfire?
We have a 360-degree projection screen at EMPAC. The screen fills Studio Two, one of the theater spaces within EMPAC, and it’s a bear to work with; it’s hard to assemble the screen, it’s hard to develop content for the screen, but it’s a very interesting tool. For years we’ve been saying, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a miniature 360-degree screen to help in developing content?’ Gordon, who first came to EMPAC in 2010 as a Rensselaer student, had a particular interest in the mini-360 screen, but it was never a direct priority. In the summer of 2014, after Gordon had graduated and joined us professionally, things came together—we had some money, the bright, quiet LED projectors we needed were just coming on the market, and we had started using a user-friendly software that was doing projection and edge-blending in a cost-effective manner. Overnight, Gordon bought foam board, scored the backs, and came up with the first curved sections of the screen. The original version was crude, made almost entirely of foam board held together with Elmer’s glue, and it took a few days to pull together. It didn’t have a floor because we were largely looking to miniaturize the big 360-degree screen.

When did you realize the Campfire had a life of its own?
We set it up and we thought, ‘this is going to be a great mini 360-screen.’ When we set up the big 360-degree screen, a lot of the time we would look at Google Street View or GeoGuesser, because they were always interesting to experience in that environment. So, in 2014, as in so many other times, we said, ‘let’s look at GeoGuesser.’ And I think the minute we turned it on and we were sitting around it, we realized this is a very different thing. As soon as that happened, we could break the connection—this was no longer just a mini 360-degree screen.