Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Cybernetics in the office
Cybernetics in the office
Keywords: Automation, Cybernetics, Research
British Telecom (BT) researchers in the UK have developed what are in essence "wraparound screens". The developers at their research and development at Ipswich, UK, have developed a new system of screens that they believe will form the prototype office of the future. Screens that give almost a 360° virtual reality could, they believe, replace the office PC and revolutionise home television. They offer great potential in many applications that commercial development companies will soon wish to exploit.
Already the system is to be marketed and made available by the UK company Incorporated Technologies of Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire. This firm has licenced the design and, we are told, hopes to begin producing a commercial version by early 2000.
This development is a result of research carried out at BT in its Smartspace Project. It is a system that allows users to experience virtual reality (VR) without the use of what is currently regarded as the essential bulky helmet.
The leader of this team, Dr John Collins, says that:
We looked at the amount of information people have to use and realised that a normal screen just is not right for displaying it all. While a lot of other companies are producing headsets for VR to immerse their users in their systems, we think it is impractical for the office environment. You really need to see and communicate with your colleagues.
The Smartspace system uses two digital projectors behind the user to project a high resolution image on to a huge screen. A smaller touch screen is used to navigate around the system and a fold-out keyboard is also being developed. The whole system is controlled by a standard PC, which is stored behind the user. A video camera on top of the screen allows the user to take part in video conferencing and BT has developed a prototype system allowing doctors to interview patients remotely.
The user, seated in the Smartspace system, has the impression of being completely immersed in the PC screen. The entire unit can also swivel round to allow the user to swing the screen and seat around almost 360° , the developers claim.
Other applications of the system, for example its use by stockbrokers, demand this manoeuvrability and function. Dr Collins says that:
Stockbrokers need to access vast amounts of information. By swivelling the chair and screen around, we can give the user the impression of being surrounded by screens, so that a broker can have different market information beside or even behind him.
BT also say that they have discussed the prototype system with military advisors who hope to use it to train soldiers and pilots. The company marketing the system, Incorporated Technologies, says that the initial problem will be the cost. Its spokesman says that:
To build a full-feature Smartspace system currently costs »42,500 so we do not expect many companies to replace all their PCs just yet. However, the cost will come down and we are confident that even home users will consider buying it in a few years.
The marketing company has a number of uses in view apart from the designed office version. A home entertainment centre is one consideration and a kiosk-based system is another.
Making communication easier by providing 360° -VR systems is yet an achievable goal of cybernetics and systems researchers.