The World at Your Feet

Immersive interactive displays might have a bright future in education.

If you walk into the Metreon entertainment center in San Francisco, you'll see a group of kids performing a free-form dance. The choreography doesn't have much organization to it and the participants are all staring at the floor. Get closer and you'll notice they're not dancing at all, but playing a video game — with their feet!

What you're seeing is a reactor, an example of an immersive interactive display. Animated images are projected onto the floor. People walk into the images and interact with them using their feet, stomping on kernels of popcorn (they pop!), shooting pool using their big toes, wading through shallow surf on pristine beaches.

This interaction between people and pictures is made possible by infrared cameras that send a rapid sequence of images to a computer, where software builds a constantly updated model of who's in the field, where they are, and what they're doing.

After seeing a reactor in action, I had the opportunity to visit Reactrix Systems, the Silicon Valley start-up that creates these displays as an advertising medium. So far, Reactrix clients include Japan Airlines, Starbucks, GAP, Benadryl, Hot Cars, Wells Fargo Bank, Amgen, and Pepsi. Why are these companies spending their advertising dollars on reactors? It won't surprise educators to learn that when people experience a reactor, they remember. Reactrix Systems's research shows that whether it's the novelty, the active nature of the reactor, the fact the experience is perceived as play, the vividness of the images, or all of these combined, when it comes to brand recognition, reactors beat traditional poster advertising hands down.

It doesn't take much of a leap to imagine possible educational applications for immersive interactive displays. Reactrix founder and chief scientist Matt Bell offered a litany of possibilities: "Take physics. You could project the whole solar system and kids could move in and see how various forces might affect things. Or interactive narratives; kids could 'walk into' the Red Riding Hood tale and move the story along by interacting with the display. Or take molecular chemistry or biology — when the technology is further perfected, I can imagine a whole room full of interactive displays on the floor, the walls."

Bell also sees the displays as a great social tool. "People [use immersive interactive displays] together. Total strangers will just start cooperating," he says. Hmm.

It sounds like a reactor might help kindergartners understand cooperative play and letter sounds at the same time. In addition, middle schoolers might learn some conflict resolution skills. Even better, perhaps the union and management negotiating teams could get out on the floor and have next year's contract settled in record time.

Hey, we're still at the dreaming stage.

Michael Simkins is creative director of the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership (TICAL).

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