Why floors, walls and ceilings are the next interface

We already have the technology. It's just not cheap enough yet.

lumo alphabet floor

The Lumo projector turns walls and floors into interactive play spaces for children. The animations respond to kids' hands and feet. 

Credit: Lumo

It's a cliché to say that in the past few decades "everything has become computerized" and that the power and quality of our computers has increased massively.

What hasn't changed much is the size of the interface. Sure, some of us have large monitors, or many monitors (you know who you are). But the vast majority of us interact with our computers and the Internet through a small rectangle (on a laptop, tablet or phone) that we place in front of our faces.

We take for granted that to interact with computers is to block out the world around us (and the people around us) as we focus on these glowing screens.

But after all these years of "computerization," something wonderful is about to happen: Our interface to the world of computers will leap off of the screen and onto the walls, floors, ceilings, tabletops, windows and other surfaces in our homes and offices, and in public spaces.

Here's what's happening.


The Lumo interactive projector turns walls and floors into interactive play spaces for children. It casts a 4-by-6-ft. animated scene onto any flat surface. Kids can play Lumo games, such as air hockey, or experience virtual environments, such as flowing lava. And the animations respond to kids' hands and feet.

Kids can also treat the floor or wall like a giant iPad, drawing pictures and then interacting with them. The Lumo system will ship with 100 games. Custom game designs can be tailored to a child's age. The projector runs on Android, and the company will offer an SDK so developers can create games and apps for the system.

Lumo is raising money on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. The projector will cost $549 when it ships in December, if all goes according to plan.

Personally, I don't think children need their imaginations enhanced by microprocessor-based technology -- they'll turn the floor into lava with or without computer assistance. But I do think adults need their imaginations enhanced. And if need is too strong a word, then we'll certainly want our imaginations enhanced.

Luckily for all of us, Lumo represents the most rudimentary application of an idea that is on the verge of going mainstream: The use of existing surfaces -- floors, walls, ceilings, tables and even windows -- as interactive computer displays. (Yeah, get ready for Microsoft Windows-based windows.)

The benefits of such environmental displays (turning everyday surfaces into interactive computer displays) are found in Lumo marketing efforts, which apply to both adults and children. Lumo says that with floor and wall displays, kids will focus on each other, rather than on a screen. They'll be active in their environment, rather than sitting motionless.

Evidence of the rise of display technologies and applications that use household and office surfaces as computer interfaces is everywhere. Here are three such examples from a single company: Microsoft.


The first is in the area of gaming. Microsoft has a research project -- and patents to go with it -- for something it calls IllumiRoom. The idea is that when you're playing an Xbox video game, your peripheral vision can be projected onto the walls, floor and ceiling of the room you're playing in. So, for example, if you're playing a shoot-em-up game in a jungle environment, the TV still has the focus of the action, but all around you is a projected jungle that corresponds in real time to the action on the screen.

The second is a technology that Microsoft introduced in January. It's a new approach to augmented reality represented by Microsoft's HoloLens technology (but also by technology from a company called Magic Leap).

These user interfaces can incorporate surfaces in a room, something Microsoft's demo makes clear. Instead of totally immersing you in a virtual, computer-generated world, as is the case with virtual reality, augmented reality can let you see the actual room you're in, and the virtual objects behave as if they're in the room, too. Virtual, computer-generated objects appear to sit on tables or bounce off walls.

The third example can be found in Microsof's occasional vision videos, which represent the company's expectations about how people will interact with computers in the next five to 10 years. One very strong theme of these videos is what you might call smart glass technology, where a regular window becomes an interactive, HD touch display on command. The concept may look futuristic and far-fetched in Microsoft's videos, but the technology to bring it into existence is already being developed.

Of course, Microsoft isn't the only company working on this general class of display technology -- not by a long shot.

The new world of ubiquitous displays

Samsung's vision videos go even further. Beyond expecting walls and windows to become displays, Samsung envisions objects like coffee cups and kitchen cutting boards becoming interactive touch displays. If all that sounds futuristic, recall that Samsung demonstrated working prototypes at CES three years ago. At this point, the advancements in technology are less about capability and more about making it cheap enough to ship.

Even the automotive industry expects car windows to become interactive.

What's exciting about this idea is that it's a general concept, not a technology or even a broad approach to technology. It will take place through projectors, through pixel-based surfaces, through augmented reality and through a combination of these technologies. What's thrilling is the idea and -- more to the point -- the change in behavior that it engenders.

Instead of being narrowly focused on tiny screens, ignoring and blocking out everything around us, we'll be able to use interfaces that will (when we choose) be in the environment generally -- interfaces that are more shareable and therefore social. The people we interact with will be life size.

It's also worth pointing out that although these interfaces can be very large -- taking up an entire wall instead of just the space on a laptop screen -- they also vanish when you're not using them. The walls return to being walls and the windows return to being windows.

Sure, I think we'll always have tiny screens when we choose to use them. But soon we'll have a huge variety of bold new options for turning the walls, floors, ceilings, tabletops, windows and other surfaces around us into interactive windows to our information and entertainment, and to the people we want to be with.

This story, "Why floors, walls and ceilings are the next interface" was originally published by Computerworld.