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The Flashlight Is A Surprisingly Perfect Interface For AR

Who needs a headset when you can just grab this magic flashlight?

We’ve hit a ceiling in augmented reality. The iPhone is superb at turning our faces into chickens, but all of the world-changing possibilities of AR–its promise of adding a whole new digital interface to our analog world–are still elusive. Many believe that AR will take off with the introduction of Magic Leap or Hololens. But maybe it’s another augmented reality metaphor that we need, an alternative to these “smart glasses” altogether.

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Lumen, featured on Creative Applications, is an augmented reality flashlight that couldn’t be easier to use. Aim it at any object, be it a pair of scissors, circuit board, or stereo, and Lumen will project responsive information about it, ranging from simple diagrams that annotate the object (labeling the parts of a circuit board, for instance) to fully interactive controls (allowing you to turn the stereo up or down or change the song, for example).

Designed and constructed by Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design masters student Arvind Sanjeev in just 10 weeks, Lumen is built upon several technologies you likely already know. It features a depth-sensing camera and an object recognition algorithm on board that identifies what you’re looking at. And it couples that with a projector, which illuminates the object intelligently, wrapping the pixels across any given 3D object like a tailored digital coat.

“I believe that unlike typical headsets that isolate a person, Lumen tries to support collaborative immersion, by allowing more people around to experience the same reality without a headset,” says Sangeev.

[Image: courtesy Arvind Sanjeev]

Combining these technologies to create a more social take on an AR interface was clever, but sticking them into a retro flashlight cemented the perfect UX. Think about it. Especially compared to an oversized smartphone, a flashlight is comfortable to hold–it has a handle and everything! Remember handles? Lumen’s gestures also need no explanation–you pretty much just aim at whatever you want to “illuminate.” You point and it clarifies.

Admittedly, Lumen has one, large practical shortcoming. Because you have to hold the light in your hand, you only have one free hand to use the augmented object. Imagine how poorly Lumen would perform in your garage, projecting repair instructions onto the engine of your car, but leaving you only a single hand to fix your transmission. But as a tool to explore new environments, it’s almost poetic, isn’t it? The Lumen is the light of knowledge right in your hand.

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[Photo: courtesy Arvind Sanjeev]

Sanjeev isn’t the only designer to imagine new metaphors for the flashlight. NewDealDesign designed the first Lytro camera using the same form factor. Since it needed no focusing, you could just aim and shoot. Local Projects has an idea that’s even closer to the Lumen’s approach to AR: Jake Barton’s team is helping develop the upcoming Faith & Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia where you explore various exhibits with a very similar digital lantern interaction. Having tried that for myself, I can assure you how well this concept works.

Sure, maybe Lumen won’t derail the augmented reality glasses to come. But there’s something to this idea that’s so fundamentally ergonomic, so comfortably human, so respectful of both our hands and the spaces we inhabit, that it would be a shame if we didn’t explore it more before we just tattoo digital screens right on our eyeballs. Which is why Sanjeev would like to see his project live on.

“I’m trying to find good partners who can turn Lumen into a real consumer platform and hope to see it being used by developers for various applications like education and entertainment,” says Sanjeev. “I am also planning to rethink the existing design and form factor, to make Lumen more ergonomic.” Though with any hope, that doesn’t involve ditching the fetching, 1980s flashlight aesthetic.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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