L.A. Zone Multitouch, Multiuser Table

Part of Exhibition: L.A. Zone

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Ecology

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Jim Spadaccini

Published on April 02, 2010, Modified on July 26, 2010

  • Description and goals

    The L.A. Zone exhibition at the California Science Center explores the natural and man-made environments that make up the Los Angeles area. The L.A. Zone is one of eight zones found in the new Ecosystems gallery space at California Science Center. This new gallery space invites visitors “to explore environments that range from the most ordinary and domestic to the most remote and inhospitable.”

    This multiuser, multitouch table exhibit in the L.A. Zone allows visitors to explore a satellite image and map of the LA Basin and view overlays in thematic areas that explore fire, air, water, and earth. In addition, points of interest are placed on the map in the form of images and videos. All of the content and navigational controls are available in English and Spanish. The exhibit software runs on a custom-built 50" multitouch table that supports 60+ simultaneous points of input.

    The exhibit is essentially a Web mashup that uses Google Maps with editable KML format overlays and geocoded Flickr images and video. Visitors can interact with the table using intuitive gestures. The multitouch mashup software was developed in Flash with GestureWorks and is partly based on software we’ve developed over the last year and half.

    The educational goals of the exhibit are to help visitors better understand the natural and man-made environment of Los Angeles. This exhibit sets out to meet these goals through the use of the map/satellite imagery and overlays. The overlays, adapted from a number of different scientific sources, show fault lines, earthquakes, vegetation types, major fires, wind patterns, airborne toxins, rivers and streams, and precipitation. Some of these overlays are very compelling. For example, the rivers and streams layer, shows streams that no longer exist and seawater barriers created to keep salt water from seeping into the aquifer.

    In addition to map and satellite imagery and overlays, the individual images and videos show points of interest that each tell a story about specific locations in the Los Angeles area. Collectively these points of interest help inform visitors and hopefully inspire them to want to learn more. The map and the rich overlays provide the larger context for these individual points of interest.

    It is hoped that the exhibit’s compelling content and unique types of interaction will encourage visitors to talk about their city and the ecological challenges it faces. The table format helps facilitate communication. The table can be approached from any side (although the south side shows the map labels right-side up and the overlays are controlled here.) Socializing around a table seems very natural, and we’ve observed visitors at various installations talking around the table for extended periods of time, which allows for both individual and collaborative interaction.

    Individual images and video objects on the table can be rotated, scaled, and moved and shared. Each object has associated metadata in the form of a title, description, and copyright information. In developing a number of multitouch, multiuser applications over the last year and half, we’ve found that giving users control of an individual “objects,” such as the image and video items, is an important design principle.

    The map and the overlays (or the “environment”) can be a point of potential visitor conflict. A floating omni-directional navigation device, which we call the “orb,” allows one visitor at a time to change the map type (satellite, road, or hybrid) and to zoom in or out. Panning the map is still a “shared” activity, although the software is designed to accept only one “drag” command at a time. The overlays are also controlled by one visitor at a time.

    Providing individual control of the map and the overlays helps limit visitor conflict. In the past year, we’ve experimented with maps that were fully controllable through gestures. Visitors could pinch to zoom in and out. Given the large 50" surface, we commonly observed visitors vying for control of the map. For example, one visitor would zoom in while another was zooming out. The “orb” controller has helped reduce this type of visitor conflict.

    The image and video “objects” also allow for multiple visitors to interact with less chance of conflict. Multiple visitors can interact with different objects simultaneously. Once a visitor is manipulating an object, changes to the larger map environment won’t affect their interaction.

    The types of visitor interaction we’ve observed with this exhibit (and similar multitouch, multiuser exhibits) is new in terms of computer-based exhibits. In the past, questions concerning conflict or cooperation in computer-based exhibits simply didn’t exist, since they were designed for one user. User Interface (UI) issues focused on the individual and whether they could successfully (and easily) retrieve information or accomplish a task. What’s exciting is that questions concerning social interaction have now moved to the forefront.

    This multitouch, multiuser mashup is a flexible and editable exhibit platform. Content can be updated or added via Flickr and once it is added it automatically shows up in the exhibit. This was an important design consideration to help keep the exhibit up to date.

    The exhibit has a secondary monitor that mirrors the table display. This makes the exhibit visible from across the gallery space. Simple instructions for use are on the sides of the surface display. The L.A. Zone exhibition is part of California Science Center’s Ecosystems exhibit gallery which opened last month.

Latest Comments (1)

Interesting use of multitouch

by Ji hui Lim - July 27, 2010

Thanks for sharing! We’ve been cracking our heads on interesting and engaging ways to use these multitouch screens for some months now.

“Light bulb!” – Gru, Despicable Me

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