“I really want to break interaction out of the small screens we use today and bring it out onto the world around us," says Robert Xiao, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist whose most recent project, Desktopography, brings the Digital Desk concept into the modern day.
(Desktopography: Supporting Responsive Cohabitation Between
Virtual Interfaces and Physical Objects)
Desktopography projects digital applications—like your calendar, map, or Google Docs—onto a desk where people can pinch, swipe, and tap...
Using a depth camera and pocket projector, Xiao built a small unit that people can screw directly into a standard lightbulb socket.
The depth camera creates a constantly updated 3-D map of the desktop, noting when objects move and when hands enter the scene. This information is then passed along to the rig’s brains, which Xiao's team programmed to distinguish between fingers and, say, a dry erase marker. This distinction is important since Desktopography works like an oversized touchscreen.
Science fiction writers have taken a few shots at the idea of the computer desk; sf great John Brunner wrote about a "desk secretary" in his 1963 story The Long Result.
More recently, Orson Scott Card fleshed out this idea in his 1985 classic Ender's Game:
Ender doodled on his desk, drawing contour maps of mountainous islands and then telling his desk to display them in three dimensions from every angle...
The bell rang. Everyone signed off their desks or hurriedly typed in reminders to themselves. Some were dumping lessons or data into their computers at home. A few gathered at the printers... Ender spread his hands over the keyboard near the edge of the desk and wondered what it would feel like to have hands as large as a grown-up's... Of course, they had bigger keyboards - but how could their thick fingers draw a fine line, the way Ender could...
(Read more about the desk computer from Ender's Game)