Sixth Sense. Only Slightly Lamer than VR.

Pattie Maes is a smart woman. She’s behind some research projects that I wish I had been part of. But the above presentation at TED of Pranav Mistry’sSixth Sense‘ system gave me flashbacks to bad VR demos in the 90s and Steve Mann’s sad exploits as a cyborg.


Sometimes the focus on technology for the sake of technology just gets in the way of thinking about how people actually live. Any mobile device I carry around will have a screen and a camera, whether it be an iPhone or a projection onto my retina. There are ample uses and opportunities for augmented reality with these, so why would I want to carry around a tiny projector too?

In the ‘Sixth Sense’ set-up, I would need to keep my body still to keep the projected image from moving all over the place and I need to have some kind of tracking blobs on my fingers too. Let’s assume the devices are combined. Again, why the projector when I already have a screen? So that I can wave my arms about as a gestural interface? In public?

Like VR, the central paradox of ‘augmenting the senses’ is that the technology cuts back the senses. We’re not just heads floating around without bodies, we interpret the world through our entire bodies. Anything that reminds you that you’re using a mediating technology gets in the way of those senses and what you’re trying to do.

The success of multitouch interfaces is that they make the interface invisible. It’s still there of course – someone has to set up the metaphors of ‘pinching’, etc. – but when it works well, you don’t think about it. But they have to work well too – the slightest lag or misinterpretation of a drag as a click soon becomes a frustration.

Clever(ish) as it is, Sixth Sense doesn’t make much sense. I get a bit sad when I see these kinds of demos get such a big response at TED, because it’s an audience who should know better and should be in front of the curve, not behind it. This should be especially true from Maes, whose MIT page quotes her as saying “We like to invent new disciplines or look at new problems, and invent bandwagons rather than jump on them.”

(And Pranav should spend some time working on his MIT Web page).

4 Replies

  • Thanks for this post Andy! I really love reading these posts where you call it as you see it.

    I saw this demo and to be honest was mildly impressed, but the obvious thought was: who the heck is going to hang a projector round their neck? Followed by: who is going to mug the person who hangs a projector round their neck?

    I do think spatial gestures have something going for them, but waving your hands around like an idiot in the supermarket just to check if a product has traces of nuts in it is not going work so well. Videoplace or Sketch Furniture utilise spatial gestures in a way that breaks away nicely from the ‘hunched over desk’ scenario.

  • I think spatial gestures can be great too – they work fantastically on the Wii and EyeToy. Not only that, it’s really amusing to watching people doing them and it’s definitely part of the entertainment experience. That performative aspect is really important to remember – I don’t think many technology driven projects like this get that very well. I could imagine something like this being used in a mixed reality game where the idea is to try and project stuff onto other people or objects/buildings, but then it is a very different idea.

    As it is, this feels far too much like the old U.S. space pen versus Russian pencil situation (which is an urban myth, by the way).

  • “Like VR, the central paradox of ‘augmenting the senses’ is that the technology cuts back the senses” – very apposite. McLuhan had it down nicely: for every augmentation comes a corresponding amputation. A reminder that augmentations are not always an unalloyed good.

    I notice your comment system has automatically flagged my most recent blog post, where I propose a different (and fairly obvious) use for the tiny projector technology used in the Sixth Sense demo…

    Viveka’s last blog post..Ad-hoc workspace sharing for under $US 500 per person

  • Good old McLuhan – he was a smart chap most of the time. That’s very true most of the time. I think there are situations when the augmentation is really just that, or rather an addition. That can more for more complexity, though, so I suppose that could be seen as the amputation part.

    The comment system that posts a link to your last blogpost is called CommentLuv. The idea is that commenters get rewarded for their trouble with a link back. I turned off the explanation bit because it means having a little love heart, which I wasn’t so keen on. But it’s a nice idea. I think. I’m still trying it – it seems to freak some commenters out a bit.

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