UCSD PRIME students drive collaboration with Museum of Photographic Arts


By Chris Palmer

Visitors to a recent technology and art exhibit in Japan were able to use high-tech touch-screen interface technology to play the role of museum curator thanks to technology developed in part by two UCSD students. As part of their research for the PRIME (Pacific Rim Experiences for Undergraduates) program at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), undergraduates Lance Castillo and Wesley Hsu designed the touch screen interface for a table that allows exhibit visitors to manipulate digital copies of photographs. The touch-sensitive table was featured at this summer’s Knowledge Capital Trial Event in Osaka, Japan, which brings together cutting-edge technology and art.

The project was the first of its kind between UCSD, the San Diego-based Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) in Tokyo.

“The goal of the project is to blend the museum field with technology, using UCSD undergraduates to bridge the two,” said Jason Haga, assistant project scientist in UCSD’s department of bioengineering and PRIME mentor.

The touch-sensitive screen interface at the Knowledge Capital event allowed visitors to view and manipulate digitized images of 50 photographs from MOPA’s collection, ranging from portraits to cityscapes. Users employed hand gestures on the surface of the 2.5-inch x 3-inch screen (which resembles an overgrown iPad) to choose photographs from a scrollable side bar and drag them to a central workspace for closer inspection.

Within the workspace, photographs can be enlarged and shrunk with expanding and pinching finger movements. Touching an icon on the side of each photograph provides the name of the photographer and other technical and historical details about the photograph. These features operate with a fluidity and responsiveness that creates a highly immersive experience.

After playing around with the photographs, visitors drag up to 10 favorites into the “My Gallery” portion of the computer interface where the order of the photographs can be finalized and stored along with the visitor’s name and a title chosen for their personalized collection.

“It’s a fun exercise in letting people get a glimpse of how you make a collection, how you group images that have a connection to each other,” said MOPA Deputy Director Vivian Kung Haga.

To engage the visitors who choose to merely observe, Castillo and Hsu connected the touch table to a nearby tile-wall display of 24 computer monitors, which cycled through the saved “My Gallery” collections.

The table, built by former PRIME participant Kevin Nguyen, utilizes FTIR (Frustrated Total Internal Reflection) technology to sense touch. Infrared beams run through a sheet of transparent acrylic. When the surface of the acrylic is touched, the infrared beams are locally deflected downward, indicating the precise location and timing of the touch. This touch-sensing technology is different, and far cheaper, than the capacitive touch technology of the iPad or iPod that relies on sensing the small electrical currents in users’ fingertips, according to Nguyen.

MOPA plans to bring in Hsu and Castillo as consultants to install and update its touch-screen interface on a larger, sleeker version of the touch table for a Fall 2012 exhibit. The screen will display more photographs from MOPA’s collection, as well as audio and video clips related to the photographs. MOPA officials plan to allow visitors, as well as users of its website, to select their favorite photos.