Engineers from the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have developed an augmented reality (AR) projector capable of interacting with both the user and the environment on which it projects an image. The university's Future Interfaces Group initially started working on its project with the goal of eliminating what it deems is the biggest issue with contemporary AR projectors - space. The idea of projecting a virtual image onto a surface and having a user interact with it has been the subject of numerous research efforts in recent years, though only a few of them like the Xperia Touch projector have been commercialized so far. Even so, existing solutions are limited in terms of their capabilities due to the fact that users are expected to prepare a work space for them; cluttered desks don't mix well with the Xperia Touch or any other commercially available AR projector, which is an issue that CMU's engineers have now seemingly been able to resolve.
The prototype that they came up with can be seen in action in the video beneath this writing and is relatively polished for an experimental solution created with little resources and in a short time span. CMU's AR projector still works best when used on a clean surface but isn't severely inhibited when projecting an image onto a cluttered desk or a similarly littered space. The depth-sensing technology powering the device allows it to detect the user's hands like its commercially available alternatives do, yet it's also able to identify other objects like books, laptops, and vacuum flasks. Once detected, the location of a foreign object is used as a reference point for the projector to rearrange the image it's displaying on any given surface; this means (e.g.) not only moving a Word window from a surface on which you've just spilled some coffee but also sticking that very same window to the edge of your laptop and moving it as you relocate the computer itself. The end result seems relatively intuitive, allowing the projector to adapt to any given surface instead of requiring the user to adapt their work space to the device.
With the creation being just a prototype, there are no assurances that this technology will ever be commercialized, though if AR projectors are ever to become mainstream, they'll likely have to start using a solution like the one developed by the CMU's Future Interfaces Group. More details on this unique project may follow in the coming months.