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Queen’s stylish Human Media Lab marries art with technology

“Boutique” laboratory has created some groundbreaking prototypes that have made international headlines.

BY JENEFER CURTIS | MAR 13 2013

The Human Media Lab at Queen’s University has an inspiring, colourful and futuristic new home on campus complete with funky furniture, the latest interactive technology and curvy wide-open spaces. It is the result of a meeting of the minds between the laboratory’s director, computing science professor Roel Vertegaal, and world-renowned industrial designer Karim Rashid.

Created in 2000 in the university’s school of computing, with a mandate “to develop disruptive technologies and new ways of working with computers that are viable 10 to 20 years from now,” the Human Media Lab marries computer science, creative design and research to create some groundbreaking prototypes that often make international headlines.

One example is a flexible “paper tablet computer” which looks and feels like a piece of paper but is fully interactive and has a flexible high-resolution display. “Within five to 10 years, most computers will look and feel like these sheets of printed paper,” predicts Dr. Vertegaal. Another example is TeleHuman, a life-size, 3-D video-conferencing pod that will enable people in different locations to talk as if they were standing in front of each other.

He explains his way of thinking in one word: utility. “If something does not have utility we are basically not interested. That’s not to say we don’t do basic research or appreciate basic research. I’ve always found computer science for the sake of computer science and working on computers for the sake of working on computers largely pointless.”

Dr Vertegaal feels strongly that grasping “utility” does not come from straight logic, but intuition. “We talk about logic and methods, but no one talks about what it means to develop an intuition, which I believe personally is the most important thing in research. … There is nothing wrong with logic but there are other methods of making decisions. If we get excited about something, our intuition is kicking in and we do it. If we are not excited about it, we don’t do it.”

By day, Dr. Vertegaal uses the laboratory for his four-year, multidisciplinary Computing and the Creative Arts program, where music, art and film students work alongside computer science students to learn how to design and develop new applications in digital technology. “We are educating students to be ready for the new creative industries,” he says, explaining that many of his students end up creating their own job out of their projects.

But economics does not interest him as much as creativity. “It’s the world’s first boutique laboratory,” he says. “It’s a living laboratory. For example, as part of a course, we have an eye tracker that lets you see through a wall that is made out of privacy glass so if you look at the wall, the wall goes transparent. It’s the idea of software architecture – hardware is software and software is hardware. Atoms are bits and bits are atoms. Everything is fluid and flexible. We’re like kids in a candy store.”

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