Interactive Installations at Onomy Labs

Last Thursday I took at tour of Onomy Labs, a Menlo Park based organization that makes interactive installations for museums and events. The company was founded by a group that worked at Xerox PARC and constructed 15-exhibit show called Experiments in the Future of Reading for the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

Our purpose for building the exhibition was to communicate two important messages to our visitors: that technology will change the way we read, and that these changes could be extremely exciting. Because we wanted the interfaces to be as intuitive as books already are, we decided to eliminate all visible keyboards or mice and instead build interactors that children would be comfortable with. Since we were building new reading devices that suggested new genres of reading, we needed to author a new kind of content for them.

Tilty Table 1

I met up with co-founder Scott Minneman at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, a perfect venue for reading based installations (if you haven’t been to the Pirate Store, you should go). Here they have installed the Tilty Table. I have a special vendetta regarding interactive tables, because normally they are not optimal for the task at hand, but this table is the best example of intuitive interface design I have seen in quite some time. Projected on the table is a map interface similar to Google Earth.


The table is circular, and can tilt any direction. This tilt controls the pan around the map. However, the table top can also freely spin in a circle which zooms in and out of the map. When you zoom into a marked point on the map, the map plays a story written by one of the kids at 826, complete with their voice over and synchronized pictures of the locations mentioned in the story. Discovering this interaction is very intuitive, and must be to engage the kids who come to 826.  Not only do they quickly learn how to interact with it, but the table’s engineering is robust enough to support the occasional child spinning around on top of it.

From San Francisco, we traveled to Onomy Labs. They have a very impressive workshop, complete with their own home built(!) laser cutter, used for making very large structural pieces for the installations. The first thing I saw was this friend, RED, the  reading eye dog. When a manuscript is placed it front of the dog, he takes pictures of both pages, stitches them together, and reads them out loud. Recognition is very good, with some mistakes at the edges. One of the interesting things was that RED was originally humanoid, but the mistakes were more palatable when the installation was in dog form.

Onomy Reading Dog

We saw several other projects there, such as a story that expands as you click on it, and and wall that displays variable content as a monitor is moved across it. One that stood out just from it’s form, however, was a mock game system for CEOs. It displayed small minigames where laywers were battled, or cubicles scaled. It was placed inside this great old TV shell from a Philco Predicta, which added a lot to the presentation.

Onomy TV


Look out of Onomy installations in museums and events around the Bay and beyond. If you are in San Francisco, be sure to go check out the Tilty table at the Pirate Store for the one of the best examples of both robust engineering, and intuitive interface that perfectly complements the content, that you are likely to see.

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