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On developing of a generic operating system for large interactive surfaces

I've recently had an idea that came to me out of seemingly nowhere. More specifically, it came to me, I think, when I was reading Founders at Work, though I can't see how that relates to this idea.

As of the time of this post, there are popular operating systems for two general classes of consumer computing devices, namely: (1) small-to-medium-sized devices, ie phones, tablets, small notebooks and other portable devices, using OSes like Android and iOS, and (2) regular-sized computers, ie traditional desktop computers and notebooks, using mostly Windows with a little Mac OS and others.

It seems that there is a lack of a generic OS for a class of devices which I will call "large interactive surfaces" (LIS for short), namely, any computing device with a screen large enough that two or more people can comfortably use it at the same time standing (or lying, or sitting) side-by-side.

Apparently, the "large interactive surface" concept is not new as I thought; searching for the three words brings up 75 million results on Google (and 1.31 million results on Google Scholar). Really, I should have expected this. After all the term and/or the definition as stated above includes devices such as the Microsoft Surface, interactive whiteboards (IWBs), and those screens that react in some way when you step on them (which in recent years have been appearing on the floor of some shopping centres).

A cursory look through the search results from Google, however, suggests that the basic concept of what I'm considering has not been made -- or at least popularised -- into a practical application yet. The current applications (in this paragraph, I am using this in its wider sense, not in the sense of a computer "app") of the LIS form seem to either focus on one task at a time (say, displaying a pond with fishes, or playing some form of Pong on the surface), or otherwise uses the form for purposes falling well short of its potential given that it is essentially the form of a computer with a big screen.

The form factor of a large screen opens up the possibility for multiple users to work on the same device simultaneously and for a single user to work on many tasks at the same time. Consider how many application windows you'd be able to open and view at the same time if your Windows computer had a screen as big as your wall.

Therefore, I am considering developing an OS specifically for the LIS form, which I will call "Elis" (from "Electronic large interactive surface"), if I ever get around to developing and completing the OS, with the basic features as follows:
- an essentially empty Home screen which, when interacted with in some way (say, double-tapping on an empty part of the screen), opens a new window at the spot with the device's list of applications;
- clicking or tapping on an application in the list opens the application in the same window;
- "flicking" of windows rather than basic dragging since one can imagine dragging a window from one point to another on a large screen can be potentially tedious;
- rotatable windows so that a LIS placed parallel to the ground can be used from all sides.

As you may notice, the Elis system is similar to most windows-based (small letter "w") operating systems other than the manner in which new windows and application instances are opened (and the rotation feature, though that is a common feature in many LIS systems). However, this simple difference allows many possibilities.

Consider the following use cases for a device with this system:
- Web surfing kiosks where multiple desktops are used can have the desktops replaced by a single LIS, possibly tilted at an angle, with the windows locked in position.
- A "notice board" where users may post notices, possibly opening a browser or picture gallery window beside a notice
- A LIS connected to a television set might have a window open for the TV controller, another window open for the TV schedule, and multiple browser windows or games open for when the viewer(s) gets bored with the TV programming.

Now there are a few problems with the thought of developing this OS. Firstly, I am mostly a web developer, not a systems programmer, and I have in fact never written any non-trivial application that is not web-based. Secondly, multi-touch screens of the size that I am thinking of are likely not cheap. Thirdly, given that work on LIS systems is not new, there is the chance of getting hit with lawsuits for patent infringement (I think, I am not familiar with patent law).

However, I figure even if Elis is never completed, or it turns out to be useless, I will be able to learn from working on it. I will therefore start by creating a web-based prototype of Elis.

It occurs to me that many of these things that I think of doing take practically forever to get into a recognisable state, so I am going to make a bet here (though nobody reads this site other than search engine spiders, so it's not like it matters, but hey). I will: (1) create a web page for ProtoElis with at least the first two features above in some form by 8am morning two days from now (30 July), and (2) clean it up and upload it here by 6pm that day. If I fail to do so I will eat my own cock.
Permalink | Posted 5:33PM 28-7-2011 by Quentin.

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