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Electronic cabinet of curiosities

Delft University Of Technology : 01 December, 2006  (Technical Article)
In the early stages of their work, industrial designers make much use of personal collections of images, publications and objects to stimulate ideas and to fuel discussions with colleagues. These items form a sort of cabinet of curiosities. For his PhD research at Delft University of Technology, Ianus Keller has developed an electronic version of such a cabinet.
During workplace interviews and observations, Keller noticed that there were two types of collection. The first was a physical one consisting of illustrations, photographs and objects collected because they fascinated and inspired the designer. This tends to grow without any formal classification and is often shared with colleagues by the displaying items openly on desk or walls and by lending them out. The other is a collection of images held on computers, which are searched purposefully for use collage or client presentations. The two collections barely overlap, with little physical material being scanned into computers and the digital images rarely being shared or used as inspiration.

The computer can be used to made visual collections more accessible, and there is already a wide range of software available to help to do just that. According to Keller, however, such library systems are unsuited to designers' informal collections. 'For such a system to work,' he says, 'you have record all sorts of data about the picture: name, date, subject and so on. To search through it, you need to type in words. All very verbal. But because they are often very visually-minded, designers have little time for all that.'

That was why Keller developed his 'Cabinet' system. It is intended to bridge the gap between physical and digital collections by making them usable simultaneously and on an equal basis in design. Interaction with the digital image is made physical and the transition from the physical to the digital becomes more fluent. Cabinet looks like a drawing board rather than a computer. The 'desktop' is a projection screen and the images come from a beamer fitted beneath it. They are reflected onto the drawing board itself by a mirror in an overhang above it.

The screen shows a number of virtual piles of photographs and sketches, just as they would lie on a designer's drawing board. Using a sort of electronic pointer, you can pull apart the piles with expressive gestures and spread their contents across the desk. As well as computerised drawings, scans of photographs, publications and even physical objects can be fed into Cabinet and so added to the collection.

When the original is removed, a 'virtual imprint' of it remains at exactly the same point on the desktop. According to Keller, this seems like 'magic' to users.

'We have been thinking about interfaces in a radically different way,' he says. 'With Cabinet, we have succeeded in blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual, between actual images and digital ones.'

The working prototype of Cabinet is being used to build up more knowledge about how designers work with their visual collections. To this end, it has been installed successfully at a number of top Dutch design firms. And earlier this year it won an important international design competition in Bristol, UK.
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