Thanks to touchscreens and motion controls, we're able to interact with anything with a screen like never before; but this still leaves that glass barrier between us and the virtual world that we see behind it. We can't just leap into our televisions or computers like Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and we certainly can't jump into the same space as someone else on the other side of the world. Now though, thanks to one design student's Portal boxes, we can at least reach our hands behind the screen along with another person connected to the internet, and interact with a virtual world together.
The word "portal" conjures up an image of a hole leading from one world into another, and in a way, that's exactly how these Portal boxes work. Using a simple setup of a webcam, a monitor, and a green screen, Jayne Vidheecharoen, a student at the Art Center College of Design in California, built a device that looks like a television with a hole in the side. A person can reach their arm inside that hole and then see their hand displayed on the monitor as if it were actually a part of whatever scene is shown. From there, they can add other physical objects to the environment and adjust the scene to their liking. Vidheecharoen hopes this could demonstrate a more natural method for controlling a virtual space.
"From an interaction standpoint, this idea of going inside the screen felt a lot more satisfying than simply thinking about touch screens and gesture based interfaces," she said. "While both touch screens and gesture based interactions allowed for more embodied interactions than a keyboard or mouse, the screen still acted like a glass wall between the user and the interface. I also wasn't necessarily interested in taking away the screen entirely, as much of the fun comes in creatively dealing with the obstacle."
That's a nifty trick on its own, but the real potential comes from connecting two Portal boxes through the internet, allowing two people anywhere in the world to interact with the same virtual space from a distance. This way, two people who aren't even in the same room can drop physical objects into the same space and shape the virtual world together. It's not hard to imagine a few practical uses for Portal boxes. Vidheecharoen has already suggested using the technology to enhance online chats, or put on a long distance puppet show.
For now, the box mostly shows scenes from Google Streetview, but she hopes to add new features to the boxes to give them a wider range of uses. She even received a nice Christmas present recently, when the Kickstarter she set up to fund the project reached its goal on Christmas Day and then went on to raise almost double what she had asked for. She plans to use these funds to expand the project further, and is already experimenting with animating physical objects that enter the space, employing a touch screen to shift the view, and installing sensors for the box to identify objects placed inside.
Her ultimate goal, though? Finding ways for a real, physical location to be affected by the interactions in the virtual one.
Check out Jayne's pitch video below to see the Portal boxes in action.