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Home » The Thrilling Potential of SixthSense Technology by Pranav Mistry (Transcript)

The Thrilling Potential of SixthSense Technology by Pranav Mistry (Transcript)

Pranav Mistry

“As an MIT grad student, Pranav Mistry invented SixthSense, a wearable device that enables new interactions between the real world and the world of data”. –

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Pranav Mistry_ The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology


We grew up interacting with the physical objects around us. There are an enormous number of them that we use every day. Unlike most of our computing devices, these objects are much more fun to use.

When you talk about objects, one another thing automatically comes attached to that thing, and that is gestures: how we manipulate these objects, how we use these objects in everyday life. We use gestures not only to interact with these objects, but we also use them to interact with each other. Like a gesture of Namaste! maybe, to respect someone, or maybe — in India I don’t need to teach a kid that this means four runs in cricket. It comes as a part of our everyday learning.

So, I am very interested, from the beginning, that how — how can our knowledge about everyday objects and gestures, and how we use these objects, can be leveraged to our interactions with the digital world. Rather than using a keyboard and mouse, why can I not use my computer in the same way that I interact in the physical world?

So, I started this exploration around eight years back, and it literally started with a mouse on my desk. Rather than using that for my computer, I actually opened it. Most of you might be aware that, in those days, the mouse used to come with a ball inside, and there were two rollers that actually guide the computer where the ball is moving, and, accordingly, where the mouse is moving.

So, I was interested in these two rollers, and I actually wanted more, so I borrowed another mouse from a friend — never returned to him — and I had now four rollers. What interestingly I did with these rollers is, basically, I took them off from these mouses and then put them in one line. It had some strings and pulleys and some springs. What I got is basically a gesture interface device that actually acts as a motion-sensing device made out of $2. So, here, whatever movement I do in my physical world is actually replicated inside the digital world just using this small device that I made, around eight years back, in 2000.

Because I was interested in integrating these two worlds, I thought of sticky notes. I thought, “Why can I not connect the normal interface of a physical sticky note to the digital world?” A message written on a sticky note to my mom on a paper can come to an SMS, or maybe a meeting reminder automatically syncs with my digital calendar — a to-do list that automatically syncs with you. But you can also search in the digital world, or maybe you can write a query, saying, “What is Dr. Smith’s address?” and this small system actually prints it out — so it actually acts like a paper input-output system, just made out of paper.

In another exploration, I thought of making a pen that can draw in three dimensions. So, I implemented this pen that can help designers and architects not only think in three dimensions, but they can actually draw so that it’s more intuitive to use that way.

Then I thought, “Why not make a Google Map, but in the physical world?” Rather than typing a keyword to find something, I put my objects on top of it. If I put a boarding pass, it will show me where is your flight gate. A coffee cup will show you where you can find more coffee, or where you can trash the cup.

So, these were some of the earlier explorations I did because the goal was to connect these two worlds seamlessly. Among all these experiments, there was one thing in common: I was trying to bring a part of the physical world to the digital world. I was taking some part of the objects, or anything intuitiveness of real life, and bringing them to the digital world, because the goal was to make our computing interfaces more intuitive.

But then I realized that we humans are not actually interested in computing. What we are interested is in information. We want to know about things. We want to know about dynamic things going around.

So I thought, around about last year — in the beginning of the last year — I started thinking that why can I not take this approach in the reverse way? Maybe, how about I take my digital world and paint the physical world with that digital information? Because pixels are actually, right now, confined in these rectangular devices that fit in our pockets. Why can I not remove this confine and take that to my everyday objects, everyday life so that I don’t need to learn the new language for interacting with those pixels?

So, in order to realize this dream, actually o thought of putting a big-size projector on my head. I think that’s why this is called a head-mounted projector, isn’t it? I took it very literally, and took my bike helmet, put a little cut over there so that the projector actually fits nicely. So now, what I can do — I can augment the world around me with this digital information.

But later, I realized that I actually wanted to interact with those digital pixels, also. So I put a small camera over there, that acts as a digital eye. Later, we moved to a much better, consumer-oriented pendant version of that, that many of you’re now knowing as the SixthSense device.

But the most interesting thing about this particular technology is that you can carry your digital world with you wherever you go. You can start using any surface, any wall around you, as an interface. The camera is actually tracking all your gestures. Whatever you’re doing with your hands, it’s understanding that gesture.

And, actually, if you see, there are some color markers that in the beginning version we are using over that. You can start painting on any wall. You stop by a wall, and start painting on that wall. But we are not only tracking here one finger. We are giving you the freedom of using all of both of your hands, so you can actually use both of your hands to zoom into or zoom out of a map just by pinching all present. The camera is actually doing — just, getting all the images — is doing the edge recognition and also the color recognition and so many other small algorithms are going on inside. So, technically, it’s a little bit complex, but it gives you an output which is more intuitive to use, in some sense.

But I’m more excited that you can actually take it outside. Rather than getting your camera out of your pocket, you can just do the gesture of taking a photo and it takes a photo for you.

Thank you.

And later I can find a wall, anywhere, and start browsing those photos or maybe, Okay, I want to modify this photo a little bit and send it as an email to a friend. So, we are looking for an era where computing will actually merge with the physical world. And, of course, if you don’t have any surface, you can start using your palm for simple operations. Here, I’m dialing a phone number just using my hand. The camera is actually not only understanding your hand movements, but, interestingly, is also able to understand what objects you are holding in your hand.

What we’re doing here is actually — for example, in this case, the book cover is matched with so many thousands, or maybe millions of books online, and checking out which book it is. Once it has that information, it finds out more reviews about that, or maybe New York Times has a sound overview on that, so you can actually hear, on a physical book, a review as sound. “famous talk at Harvard University …

This was Obama’s visit last week to MIT. (“… and particularly I want to thank two outstanding MIT …”) So, I was seeing the live of his talk, outside, on just a newspaper. Your newspaper will show you live weather information rather than having it updated — like, you have to check your computer in order to do that, right?

When I’m going back, I can just use my boarding pass to check how much my flight has been delayed, because at that particular time, I’m not feeling like opening my iPhone, and checking out a particular icon. And I think this technology will not only change the way — yes. It will change the way we interact with people, also, not only the physical world. The fun part is, I’m going to the Boston metro, and playing a pong game inside the train on the ground, right? And I think the imagination is the only limit of what you can think of when this kind of technology merges with real life.

But many of you argue, actually, that all of our work is not only about physical objects. We actually do lots of accounting and paper editing and all those kinds of things; what about that? And many of you are excited about the next generation tablet computers to come out in the market.

So, rather than waiting for that, I actually made my own, just using a piece of paper. So, what I did here is remove the camera — All the webcam cameras have a microphone inside the camera. I removed the microphone from that, and then just pinched that — like I just made a clip out of the microphone — and clipped that to a piece of paper, any paper that you found around. So now the sound of the touch is getting me when exactly I’m touching the paper. But the camera is actually tracking where my fingers are moving.

You can of course watch movies. (“Good afternoon. My name is Russell … and I am a Wilderness Explorer in Tribe 54.”)

And you can of course play games. (Car engine) Here, the camera is actually understanding how you’re holding the paper and playing a car-racing game.

Many of you already must have thought, Okay, you can browse. Yeah. Of course you can browse to any websites or you can do all sorts of computing on a piece of paper wherever you need it. So, more interestingly, I’m interested in how we can take that in a more dynamic way. When I come back to my desk I can just pinch that information back to my desktop so I can use my full-size computer.

And why only computers? We can just play with papers. Paper world is interesting to play with. Here, I’m taking a part of a document and putting over here a second part from a second place — and I’m actually modifying the information that I have over there. Yeah. And I say, okay, this looks nice, let me print it out, that thing. So I now have a print-out of that thing, and now — the workflow is more intuitive the way we used to do it maybe 20 years back, rather than now switching between these two worlds.

So, as a last thought, I think that integrating information to everyday objects will not only help us to get rid of the digital divide, the gap between these two worlds, but will also help us, in some way, to stay human, to be more connected to our physical world. And it will actually help us not end up being machines sitting in front of other machines.

That’s all. Thank you.

Thank you.

Question-and-answer Session

Chris Anderson: So, Pranav, first of all, you’re a genius. This is incredible, really. What are you doing with this? Is there a company being planned? Or is this research forever, or what?

Pranav Mistry: So, there are lots of companies — actually sponsor companies of Media Lab — interested in taking this ahead in one or another way. Companies like mobile phone operators want to take this in a different way, then the NGOs in India, are thinking, “Why can we only have ‘Sixth Sense’? We should have a ‘Fifth Sense’ for missing-sense people who cannot speak. This technology can be used for them to speak out in a different way with maybe a speaker system.”

Chris Anderson: What are your own plans? Are you staying at MIT, or are you going to do something with this?

Pranav Mistry: I’m trying to make this more available to people so that anyone can develop their own SixthSense device, because the hardware is actually not that hard to manufacture or hard to make your own. We will provide all the open source software for them, maybe starting next month.

Chris Anderson: Open source? Wow. Are you going to come back to India with some of this, at some point?

Pranav Mistry: Yeah. Yes, yes, of course.

Chris Anderson: What are your plans? MIT? India? How are you going to split your time going forward?

Pranav Mistry: There is a lot of energy here. Lots of learning. All of this work that you have seen is all about my learning in India. And now, if you see, it’s more about the cost-effectiveness: this system costs you $300 compared to the $20,000 surface tables, or anything like that. Or maybe even the $2 mouse gesture system at that time was costing around $5,000? So, we actually — I showed that, at a conference, to President Abdul Kalam, at that time, and then he said, “Okay, we should use this in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for some use of that.” So I’m more excited about how I can bring the technology to the masses rather than just staying that technology in the lab environment, something like that.

Chris Anderson: Based on the people we’ve seen at TED, I would say you’re truly one of the two or three best inventors in the world right now. It’s an honor to have you at TED. Thank you so much. That’s fantastic.

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