In Touch With The Future

If you want a glimpse of how we may all interact with machines someday, visit the nondescript offices of Immersive Labs in Grand Rapids to watch Jason Sosa enter computer commands with his hands like a conductor leading a symphony.

Standing in front of a screen the size of a large coffee table, Sosa uses both hands at the same time to create cascading waterfalls of light as the computer system tracks his every motion with infrared light and detectors. He traces two circles on the screen, then with the flick of his finger  knocks one into another like billard balls careening on a pool table. He outlines and drags items around with his hands as a child would play with fingerpaints.

This is Multi-Touch technology, Sosa says. This is the future.

With Limited Perception
“I think we are currently limited by our perception of how a computer operates,” says Sosa, founder of Immersive Labs, which he recently moved to Grand Rapids from the  Lakeshore Business Garden in Zeeland to be closer to prospective customers.

To watch Sosa operate his system is to invite a complete redefinition of how we will use computers a few years from now. Projected onto a big screen that senses his hand’s motions, Sosa’s system responds when he uses his hand to grasp an item and drag it into a different location. Using infrared light, cameras embedded in the screen recognize touches and swiping motions, then tell items on the screen how to respond to the user’s commands.

Immersive Multi-touch Showcase Demo from Jason Sosa on Vimeo.

To  see if anyone has posted videos on YouTube pertaining to Holland, Michigan,  Sosa types “HOLLAND, MI” using an on-screen keyboard, then drags it with his hand onto button labeled “YouTube.” Seven sample videos pop up instantly, inviting the user to watch any one of them just by touching it.

Multi-Touch technology  differs from the iPhone or other click-and-drag technology because it doesn't limit the user to one click at a time. You have two hands. You might have five friends standing there with you. Everyone can click to his or her heart’s content, and the applications showing on the screen will respond.

Source of Inspiration
Where did Sosa get this idea? He traces the inspiration to a restaurant he visited in Shanghai, China, which featured an interactive display that allowed users to create phenomena like scattering fish.

“I fell into a lot of research about this, and I began to see a trend occurring in interfaces,” Sosa says. “Just as we moved away from a command-line interface into a graphical interface, now we’re moving into a natural-user interface. It’s a natural evolution.”

Sosa observes that the manner in which users work with their computers has remained largely unchanged for the past 20 years – mainly because change has been limited by the capabilities of the systems themselves. The devices people use have gotten smaller, but the way people use them hasn’t radically changed. As systems begin to advance to recognize human nature, he believes interfaces like Multi-Touch will become the next big thing in computer usage, although it may take four or five years to get there.

Watching Sosa drag and toss items around his massive computer display causes you to  think, “This is really cool,” but at the same time wonder: “What is the practical application of this?”

Examing the Possibilities
Sosa is already discussing the system with potential clients, none of whom he is quite prepared to name – but he mentions several examples of how we could see Multi-Touch in use soon. They include a large media wall for a trade show that would give users the chance to interact with the display in a way that would surely attract attention. Others could include educational uses or a homeland security application. (Envision an episode of 24 in which the team is assembled while Jack Bauer uses Multi-Touch to explain a looming threat and the plan for eliminating it.)

Multi-Touch is also a natural for collaborative work, Sosa believes, whether the collaborators are standing next to each other or are a continent apart.

But as the concept gains more acceptance, it will eventually become more standard for mainstream business uses.“The way the system operates is more intuitive to how our brain works,” Sosa said.

But do our brains know that? With a generation of users having familiarized themselves with traditional computer interfaces, what will be required to acclimate users to a natural-user interface?”

“We are conditioned to use hierarchical systems of menus and command interfaces, so there’s no question we’re going to have to get used to a new way of thinking,” Sosa says. “I think it’s kind of like when the iPhone first came out. They said it may take you awhile to get typing on it, but once you get started, you’ll think, ‘How did I ever do without this?’”

Flexible Thinking
As is usually the case with technological advances, Sosa expects that children will have an easier time with new interface models because they are not as set in their ways using the existing ones.

“My kid will have an easier time understanding this than I do, because I grew up with this paradigm” Sosa says.

Like most entrepreneurs, the 29-year-old Sosa is avoiding putting all his eggs in one basket – even as he confidently envisions the future of his technology. While he works toward the day when Multi-Touch can be a major revenue generator, Sosa operates out of a shared workspace at 941 Wealthy SE and also pays the bills by selling a line of computer bags he developed – and by collecting royalties from some licensed content he created.

A married father of two, the West Ottawa High School graduate lives in Hudsonville, and has no regrets about having followed his own path while many of his classmates were plodding their way through college.

“I was told I had the choices of trade school or working at odd jobs the rest of my life,” Sosa says of his immediate post-high school days. “Rather than accepting what society’s roles are, I asked, how can I make myself better?”

That doesn’t mean he has rejected learning by any means. It just means he has chosen his own approach to it.

“There is no reason I can’t know something today that I didn’t know yesterday just by a single Google search,” Sosa says. “And what we realize is that the goal of an entrepreneur – and you get caught up in this – I may have a goal to make a million dollars. But the goal is not necessarily as important as who you become throughout this process. And I realize I’ve grown up as a human being. I’m a better dad because of this. I’m a better friend.”

Due to his venture, Sosa also may be showing us a better way to live in the computer age.

Dan Calabrese is the co-founder and editor in chief of North Star Writers Group and previously owned a West Michigan public relations firm by the same name. He has written for the Macomb Daily, the Royal Oak Daily Tribune, the Journal Newspapers in Wayne County and the Grand Rapids Business Journal. He previously wrote for Rapid Growth about community banking leader Laurie Beard.


Jason Sosa at 941 Wealthy

Jason Sosa demonstrates large touch screen technology

Jason Sosa

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a commercial photographer, filmmaker and Rapid Growth's managing photographer. You can follow his photography adventures here on his blog...or here on Twitter.