Playsurface: The affordable flat-pack touchscreen for the masses
Founded upon open source plans for optical touch tables, the designers of the Playsurface hope to develop a versatile touchscreen table-top suitable for a variety of "blazingly fast" applications (yes, including gaming) supporting multpiple users. Though purely an input and display device, the table can be had with an integrated PC as an extra. If the project goes ahead (funding is currently sought through Kickstarter), its designers claim it would be as easy to assemble as Ikea furniture. It's not a bad comparison: the flat-packed, affordable Playsurface is a product that its makers at Templeman Automation hope will close the disconnect between the popularity and availability of table-top touchscreens.
The Playsurface's touch surface is not a touch-screen, as such. Instead it is a transparent plastic surface with a special layer applied, onto which a mirror reflects an image from a short-throw projector housed within the unit. Touch detection is handled optically, with sensors working with infrared sources within the table to pick up shadows created by user touches. It's a relatively low-cost technology growing in popularity, and is well suited to larger touchscreens.
Crucial to the promise of responsive performance is the ability of the peripheral to remove the burden of touch detection and tracking from the connected computer, which could otherwise compromise computer performance. "The problem we found with giving out tables like the prototypes we had was that every program was tricky in its own way to get touch events to work smoothly," Michael White, CEO/CTO of Templeman Automation told Gizmag. " We wanted to produce something that developers could jump on and make apps. That is when we decided that the right way to upgrade the tables you find on NUI Group [a global research group looking into natural user interfaces] is to offload the image processing to dedicated hardware."
In order that the Playsurface can work well with lower-spec computers, the designers have come up with what they call the "blob board," a USB device that handles all the touch detection and processing. The purpose of the Kickstarter funding is partly to cover the costs for the first run of boards. And because the table design is open source, users can buy a blob board and build the rest of the table themselves.
The table itself is made of untreated pine, and comes in two forms: a legged table for standing use, and a legless coffee table to sit around. A hinged panel means one whole side of the table can be opened up to get to the innards, if necessary.
As an R&D outfit more used to working with the US Navy than producing affordable consumer product, the Playsurface might seem a strange avenue for Templeman Automation to follow. But in fact the product is something of a logical progression for the company.
"In one program we have been working with the Navy on ways to help them quickly and efficiently move planes around on the decks of aircraft carriers," White told Gizmag. "This involved making software that imported from AutoCAD and allowed drag and drop with a physics engine so planes could collide and be packed, as well as automating packing algorithms. As part of this work, we found out that the Navy does lots of collaborative work with scale models of planes and deck drawings where, say, ten guys get around a big table and come up with deck arrangements. But it involved getting guys from all over the country to that table. So we started working on touch tables to enable them to do the same thing both over the internet and in a way that it could be saved and new planes or gear could be imported and moved around easily."
But with a prototype built it was inevitable that the company's engineers would start putting the table to other uses - flash games, predictably enough. But the prototypes received enthusiastic responses at events such as Maker Faire, and White is confident that there's a market in education for the Playsurface, especially for use among young or disabled children. And while hoping to nail down some separate contracts for its table-top touchscreens, Templeman Automation says some of the Kickstarter money will go towards putting Playsurfaces into classrooms.
Ultimately, though, it seems that the goal is just to make table-top touchscreens much more available.
"Microsoft has touted its Surface and that Windows 8 will be heavily touch enabled, mostly based on the rise of smart phones and tablets," White told Gizmag. "But the explosion of the app economy really followed the ability for developers to make their own apps with low overhead. At US$8,000 the MS Surface is out of the price range for most people. On the other hand, people expect touch interfaces to be playing a larger and larger role in the desktop computer experience. A critical part that is missing is a platform that is priced to penetrate into people's homes."
At the time of writing and with 20 days to go, 41 Kickstarter backers had pledged almost US$11,000 of the $40,000. Not always the case with Kickstarter projects, lower pledges come with compelling or useful rewards. Though $20 buys you a magnet, half of that money will go towards educational programs. Meanwhile, $150 buys you a blob board PCB, and $250 comes with all the electronics components you'd otherwise need to build your own Playsurface table. A complete table will set you back $1250, while $1550 and $2300 pledges will net you Playsurfaces with integrated PCs - the more expensive option billed as a fully fledged "multi-touch game machine."
Source: Playsurface at Kickstarter