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TAMPERE, Finland – Last week, you’ll have seen news that the scientists at the Nokia Research Centre in Tampere had constructed a touchscreen from a giant ice wall. At first glance, this might have seemed like a bit of fun or a stunt. And in some ways, it was. But actually, the thinking and the science behind the ice wall also provides an insight into the computing devices of tomorrow.

As I sit in my living room, there are four screens within view, plus numerous control panels. If I go into the kitchen, there’s half-a-dozen more. Computers are all over the place – embedded into almost everything that draws a current. That makes for a very busy and quite ugly environment. It’s also very demanding. Whenever we want to do something else with a different computer, we have to pay attention to a different device with a different interface.

There’s no going back. Computers will be increasingly embedded in our lives in the future. So what scientists and engineers working in the field of pervasive computing aim to do is reduce the clutter. They’re working to try to bring back an element of calmness and simplicity into our surroundings. It’s known as calm technology. In the words of the research paper that’s been written about the ice wall experiment, the final aim is to “[Bring] computing to the periphery, where it will appear as an ambient system requiring attention only when needed.”

There’s a lot of work to be done. You might have a ‘universal remote’ for your AV system, but good luck getting it to work with your Central Heating boiler or your washing machine. Instead of a single screen, or screens that only appear when needed, we’ve got dozens, and they’re all different.

Which brings us to the ice wall. If we want to reduce the number of screens and panels cluttering up our lives, then one way of achieving that is making it so that anything can potentially be a screen, appearing and disappearing according to what we want to do, or what will be useful to us. So scientists and engineers have been experimenting with all sorts of different materials. You may have seen digital displays projected onto fog, or created from water streams. And now, ice.


The Tampere team used natural ice blocks, plucked from a frozen river to create the building blocks for the wall, cut to shape with a chain saw. Once fitted together, they used a heat gun to remove the surface frost and so increase its translucency.

The resulting ‘screen’ was then lit with infra-red illuminators – the type that are often used for night security camera systems. A webcam was used to track touches, streaming to a nearby computer at 30 frames a second. A Java application running on the computer produced feedback in the form of a burning flare that appeared at the point of touch, leaving trails. The results were sent back to a conventional office projector with a 2000 lumen lamp and back onto the wall. Despite being relatively low-tech, the results were bright enough for use in the early evening when the demo was scheduled to happen.


People who tried out the installation were delighted:

It suits [well] here in the North since it has ice elements, and light is what you need during this dark season.

It’ s not like putting plastic… just ice, nature, ice

People saw this as a more natural screen interaction, well-suited to the cold winter conditions in the city. This is computing interaction without computers. And while the wholesale use of ice as building blocks for the devices of the future is perhaps unlikely to catch on, the idea of natural, ad-hoc screens anywhere is very much a taste of where we’re headed.