A Q&A with Ubi Interactive

A little over a years ago a group of 11 start-ups were selected to take part in the first Kinect Accelerator program, headquartered out of our South Lake Union offices. I had the chance to see some of the really amazing work being done and one group that especially caught my eye was Ubi Interactive, which was started by a couple of guys from Munich, Anup Chathoth and Chao Zhang.

To put it simply, Ubi Interactive is all about turning virtually any surface into an interactive touch surface and a few weeks ago Anup and Chao’s hard work paid off with v.1 being publicly available. (For more on that, see Tom Warren’s coverage on The Verge.)

I recently had the chance to sit down with Anup and Chao to talk a little bit about their journey and where things are headed.

NEXT: How did you start working on touch interface technology?

ANUP CHATHOTH: Chao was working on his master thesis about collaboration and was developing a cloud-based application using digital pen and paper technology. But then we started discussing how it could be more natural and use less sophisticated, off-the-shelf technology.

The basic idea was to create interfaces wherever you go by combining projector and camera technology. So we developed a prototype that could be hung around your neck and would project an interface onto tables or walls wherever you were. You could interact with it just like you would with a tablet.

Unfortunately, the display quality was not the best and we realized that having a wearable device posed a lot of challenges to users. So we went back to the drawing board and thought about how your typical user already has a laptop or tablet running Windows and all the applications they want. They usually have access to displays, like a projector in a conference room, so why not just make the part that’s missing?

We designed the hardware, a camera sensor unit, and our software so that we could turn the typical display into something interactive.

By then the Kinect was coming out to the market, and people were hacking with it. Once Microsoft encouraged developers to hack the Kinect we started playing around with it and thought that it was going to be a very interesting solution.

NEXT: It sounds like you already had a pretty good understanding of what you were trying to accomplish. What was the biggest benefit of the Kinect Accelerator program?

ANUP CHATHOTH: To be honest, we were pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. In the beginning, I had a concern that Microsoft, being a big enterprise, would have a difficult time thinking like a startup and understanding what we really needed. But we spent three months in the Accelerator and three more months in the Microsoft space working on this idea.

A couple of things that really stood out for us were that there were a lot more Microsoft executives who came out to meet us, spent time with us, mentored us, advised us and connected us to customers. They spent a lot of time, they really understood what we were trying to achieve, and they were really trying to see how we could become successful.

One of the mentors who was working with us very closely, Michael Mott, was the sponsor of the Accelerator program for Microsoft. Even now he sets aside time every week to talk to us, kind of help us go through some of the business questions we are always facing.

So I think having that kind of relationship in place was one of the big, big advantages for us.

CHAO ZHANG: One of the other advantages was that there were other partners we could talk to. For example, one of the partners had experience in setting up these kind of solutions. And they helped us a lot. They knew the customer needs, they knew the situation. They are in the same field and could give us real time feedback. We could really improve the process with this kind of help.

 NEXT: Obviously touch interfaces have just kind of exploded with a lot of companies offering variations on the same theme. What sets Ubi apart from some of the others?

ANUP CHATHOTH: I think there are a couple of things that we learned from our interaction with customers that I think have the biggest value proposition in terms of what we’re doing. One of the key things is that it works with what customers have, right? It just needs some additional software that, in turn, works with what they already have, transforming it into something new.

For example, if you take an enterprise or a classroom or any other scenario, I have a PC and a projector but it’s not interactive. Suddenly I buy an off-the-shelf camera from Microsoft and a piece of software and now it’s a big touchscreen. And it works with applications I have, it works with the Surface I have, and it actually lets me use the same interactions I’m used to doing on a normal tablet or a phone.

The second thing is the simplicity or intuitiveness of putting this all together. People are afraid it’s just going to be very technically challenging, that it’s going to be very hard to get used to using, so we made the assumption that setup should be done very fast by a person who has no technical knowledge. In the beginning, the startup takes a couple of seconds and after that doesn’t have to really do anything. It’s all done automatically.

CHAO ZHANG: And besides being easy to set up, it is also very flexible because you don’t need to tie the Kinect to the projector. You can separate them in a different angle. The setup looks really clean because the user, they don’t see the projector, they don’t see the Kinect.

NEXT: So what’s the typical response the first time someone uses Ubi?

CHAO ZHANG: For me personally, when I show it to people what I hear the most is something like, “It just works.” I was showing Ubi to a few friends and they brought their kids in. I just downloaded the software and they were just astonished how the kids could just start using it. It even surprised me how easy it was.

ANUP CHATHOTH: One of the main responses I hear is like “Oh, it looks like science fiction,” or “It’s magic.” That’s kind of the first reaction. Then, suddenly, this person gets a lot of ideas about, “Oh, Ubi could be used for that, Ubi could be used for this!” So we’re fielding a lot of requests from customers who have signed up for our software or expressed interest, and it’s really, really interesting to actually see the variety of ideas they come up with.

For example, one person wanted to turn a classroom desk into interactive screens because he was working with physically disabled students who can’t get up and interact with a big screen that’s mounted on a wall. He wanted the table to be interactive and he wanted to make sure that students couldn’t destroy the table because sometimes they tend to use more force than they should actually use.

These are all use cases that really surprised us because we never even thought about it, and people are coming up with all kinds of ideas like this. And that’s really the most interesting part of what we do.

NEXT: Where do you see the future of touch heading?

ANUP CHATHOTH: If you look at the adoption of touch, I think it’s happened much quicker than it has for any other device input. Five, six years ago not everybody had a touchscreen. Now most everyone who has a device wants a touchscreen, be it a smart phone, tablet or a PC or whatever it is – or they’re using it in a public place or anywhere.

Being such a simple intuitive input method that needs no explanation, that can be understood by my one-year old or her 68 year-old grandfather who has not been using technology so much – that intuitiveness, I think, makes touch really, really powerful. And we are only going to see more and more interfaces that are really tuned for that kind of interaction.

One of the questions that customers always ask us is how to use Ubi as a replacement for an interactive whiteboard session. We’re testing and evaluating a solution right now that we think is going to be a real game-changer. And with the new version of Kinect is going to really improve the performance, position, accuracy and responsiveness of our software.

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