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Fun With Projectors

From restaurants without menus to dealerships without cars, researchers are using light to project a virtual future. Find out more, Tuesday 6/4 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on 'Tech Live.'
Also airs 6/4 at 11:30 p.m. and 6/5 at 2:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 4 p.m. Eastern.

By Jessica Rappaport, Tech Live
June 4, 2002

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Ordering food without a waitress? Visiting a car dealership without cars? What do these two things have in common? They both involve using a video projector, a little creative muscle, and some tech know-how. And they're both research projects at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts (MERL). "Tech Live" takes you along on a personal tour of this high-tech fountainhead tonight.

Automats for the 21st century

The research scientists at MERL have way too much fun, and their quirky innovative prototypes reflect that light-heartedness. Researcher Paul Dietz and his team are working on "Mel's Electric Cafe," their answer to how to design the restaurant of the future. The menu is displayed on the table from an overhead video projector. The customer sits down at the table and chooses what they want to eat by dragging the picture of the food item onto a virtual plate. They confirm the order by swiping their credit card through a machine on the wall. "Underneath the table here there is an array of antennas. There are 256 of them and they are each putting a unique signal. And each chair has a receiver. So when I touch some place like by the cake here, the system knows that I am receiving signals from antennas in this region 'cause it is passing through me to the chair. And so it can tell the person in this chair is touching there," Dietz explained.

This high-tech automat uses diamond touch, a technology that allows for multiple users to touch the same screen. Dietz said they are also working on making a super user for the table. For instance, if there are kids at the table and they start ordering everything on the menu, the super user will be allowed to override their choices and make one decision for the table.

Now this does not completely eliminate the server. The researchers have also built in two server call buttons into the booth, just in case a customer has a question or is confused about operating this system. It will also allow the server to access a special controller on the side of the table, so they can bring up daily specials and deals.

So when will the restaurant of the future emerge as the latest theme food establishment? Dietz said they're just developers and they don't make end products. However, they have spoken to some people who are very interested in the product. One big obstacle to commercial success is that the video projector costs one to three thousand dollars per table. Once that cost comes down, or they can figure out another way to get the same results, Dietz thinks this will really catch on. "We can picture this fitting into many types of more futuristic modern type restaurant that are already out there," he said.

Virtual salesroom

The other brainchild project is called "Shader Lamps," which animate real objects with projectors. Researcher Ramesh Raskar demonstrated how this project could be applied in a car dealership. He bought a twenty dollar model car kit at Toys R' Us and painted it white. With an overhead projector he is able to change the color and background the car sits against to make it look like it is moving. It's almost like watching one of those racecar videogames. "Our whole idea is how to combine special effects and the real world because special effects in movies or on television... are two-dimensional and flat. But here we are combining special effects with something you can walk around and look at with your friends," Raskar said.

How is this all achieved with a video projector? The MERL website explains that researchers map out the virtual design and fit it the real model. "We achieve alignment between the physical object and projected images, semi-automatically using projector calibration techniques. Second, we use 3D graphics hardware to change not just the texture of the object, but also the view dependent appearance. This allows us to make, for example, an object appear shiny with specular highlights. Third, we solve the problem of seamlessly merging images from multiple projectors in the presence of occlusions and self-shadows," according to Raskar's project description.

Future uses would allow places like car dealership to house these virtual models. They could project different colors and special features. People will have a little trouble climbing into the mini-car for a test drive, but Raskar thinks this could be especially useful in trade show environments.

"Tech Live" airs weekdays at 9:30 a.m., 4 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m., and 2:30 a.m. Eastern.

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