xLAB designs next-generation immersive experiences

With processing power and internet connectivity increasing, people don’t just learn how to use the latest in technology—that technology actually learns right back.

Your phone knows where you are, so it provides movie times and restaurant recommendations for places in walking distance. Your thermostat knows what time you get home and what temperature you’d like your house to be when you get there. Your TV has your favorite shows recorded because it knows what you like. And all of these devices can now talk to one another to learn even more about their users.

This “internet of things” promises a seamless, tech-infused vision of the world, but a new lab at Penn aims to do more than build the latest in a series of gizmos and gadgets. According to its founders, the xLAB—the “x” is for “experience”—represents a different model, not just for making new things, but teaching the next generation of those makers.

The brainchild of Penn Engineering’s Rahul Mangharam and PennDesign’s Carla Diana, Sarah Rottenberg, and Orkan Telhan, xLAB began through collaborations between students in their respective classes through Penn’s Integrated Product Design and Embedded Systems programs. Students in xLAB brainstorm projects related to the future of entertainment systems, coupling digital content with internet-connected physical devices. They actively interact with design consultants, involve users to narrow down their needs and then work together to build, refine, and test prototypes of those ideas.

“The melting pot of students from disciplines makes things exciting; their priorities and experiences are different, so they can have a lot of things to say to one another,” Telhan says.

In order to nurture these collaborations organically and encourage a creative, open-ended approach to problem-solving, the team established xLAB as a way of providing physical space and resources for anyone interested in working in this area. An open-door policy is meant to foster interdisciplinary, extracurricular growth.   

The lab is initially being funded by Comcast, with an eye on four broad goals: interfaces for the internet of things, interactive advertising, immersive entertainment experiences, and understanding the new relationships millenials want with content.

“We are interested in things that are truly a closed loop between the physical world and the cloud,” says Mangharam. “It’s not just about making the next whiz-bang gadget; those systems may be well-designed and engineered, but they don’t answer the bigger question of how they fit into people’s lives.”

One ongoing project is an interactive personal fitness mat that advances an on-screen instructional video once the user is in the right pose. Such a content-coupled product could be useful to people homebound by injury or illness, or who simply want personalized and interactive yoga sessions.  

The xLAB team will present their vision of interdisciplinary design and engineering at a Penn Science Café event on Tuesday, Aug. 12.

Originally published on July 17, 2014