As I rode my bike into work today, I passed an ad that reminded me of the tabletop displays from Microsoft that ended up in Harrah’s casino a few years ago. The ad showed a woman with a too-cool-to-care affect, standing next to an illuminated table, holding a drink and beckoning someone to “interact” with her.  Interactive, ambient interfaces, seamlessly integrated into a social setting. Very cool.  I’m sure folks in the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Community would be proud to know their work is making its way into bars and casinos.

This got me wondering why interactive tabletop displays haven’t become more prevalent. I’ve seen a lot of very interesting tabletop displays from the research community over the years including: Mark Ashdown’s “Escritoire Project” that used projectors to render virtual documents onto a desk for editing/sorting, some similar work from folks at Cambridge and the “Office of the Future” program at UNC Chapel Hill that filled your office with projected images.

It turns out, the idea of a digital desk, with fully editable, interactive media rendered onto its surface is not very new.  In fact, researchers at Xerox were already building tabletop displays in the early nineties and some of the foundational work goes back farther than that.

So why then, with all of this research and commercial emphasis on tabletop displays, are they so rare? Why do I not sit with my colleagues around a tabletop display to hold a meeting? Why is it that the last tabletop display I actually used was a cocktail table video game at a pizza parlor sometime around 1994?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of being able to put nachos and a beer on the same device that can play Galaga, but it seems like there would be broader adoption of tabletop displays, particularly for collaboration.  This is a sign of the cultural challenge we face.

To use a display in a non-traditional form factor like a table, the existing display use model has to change. Today displays are too closely tied to how we learned to interact with televisions, and TV was designed around the idea of watching a stage, or looking at a picture. Obviously, as displays begin to evolve outside of the traditional picture-frame format into something more interesting, even something as incrementally new as a tabletop display, new use model must be explored.

Of course, lots of great thinking is going on within academic and industrial research labs on how best to interact around, collaborate with, and create on, tabletop displays.  But, very little of that work has found its way into new products that will drive the mainstream adoption of new display uses.

What do you think needs to happen for us to really see this change?

About Christopher Jaynes

Jaynes received his doctoral degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he worked on camera calibration and aerial image interpretation technologies now in use by the federal government. Jaynes received his BS degree with honors from the School of Computer Science at the University of Utah. In 2004, he founded Mersive and today serves as the company's Chief Technology Officer. Prior to Mersive, Jaynes founded the Metaverse Lab at the University of Kentucky, recognized as one of the leading laboratories for computer vision and interactive media and dedicated to research related to video surveillance, human-computer interaction, and display technologies.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Christopher Jaynes
    January 5th, 2011

    Interesting. I particularly like the “TouchLife for Family”. A tabletop display to replace the traditional family board-game. Finally an answer to how to preserve those 8 hour Axis and Allies games.

  • Matt
    January 5th, 2011

    Interesting post, Chris. I’m fortunate to know the people behind Touch Taste Technologies (, a Chicago-based company that has gained a lot of traction in tabletop ordering. I think it’s a good example of design that fits the need; The table top is a ubiquitous part of the bar-going experience.

Submit Comment