The future of technology is coming to Penn today.
Penn xLAB, a new program based out of the Engineering School, is working on innovative new ways to interact with our media and the internet, revolutionizing the way we see technology today. Although the group is relatively new, they have hopes their ideas will eventually affect real products, possibly with the help of their current partner Comcast.
The founders of Penn xLAB — Sarah Rottenberg , Rahul Mangharam , Orkan Telhan and Carla Diana — began collaborating in the spring of 2014 and announced the opening of Penn xLAB, which got its initial funding from Comcast, this past summer.
Knowing that he would be able to build an elaborate electrical prototype for his ideas, Mangharam realized that he needed the help of a design team to be able to create products that could lead to real devices in people’s homes. He then reached out to Diana and Rottenberg at the Integrated Product Design program at Penn.
“We are beyond the era of just building gadgets,” Mangharam said. “We want to see if we can make people more immersed in an experience, even being able to control and manipulate it.”
Currently, there are a number of graduate students working on Penn xLAB. They come primarily from mechanical and electrical engineering backgrounds, as well as from the IPD program .
Clementine Gilbert, a graduate student in the IPD program, is working with Rottenberg to brainstorm the future of at-home fitness, specifically what piques consumers’ interest in new products and what keeps them loving the ones they currently have.
“[The xLab] creates more opportunities for intersection between both of the schools,” Rottenberg said. “They each learn a lot from working with one another and it’s exciting for the students to see things from a slightly different perspective.”
The lab itself is currently set up like a living room, with a couch, television and yoga mat — but the furniture is not the kind you would find in your living room at home. The couch, for example, is wired to give its users an immersive television experience.
“Suppose there is an impact while watching Spiderman,” Mangharam said. “We could feel that impact from the couch and from a vest that you would wear — it’s like getting Disney’s 4-D experience at Wal-Mart prices.”
The yoga mat tells users exactly where to put their hands and feet. It also provides several skill level options, ranging from novice to advanced based on the preference of the user.
“You can’t do a downward dog if you are staring at the screen,” Mangharam said. “For certain things, the interface needs to be different — now you will be interacting with the mat rather than the TV screen.”
Inspiration for personalized devices like the mat came from Penn xLAB participants’ observation that more and more products allow internet connectivity.
“We are in a moment in time where people talk a lot about the ‘internet of things’ ” Diana said . “This means we can take microcontrollers or small computers and embed it in everyday objects, [which] is possible in a way it never was before.”
The team is not changing the functionality of the products it is analyzing, Mangharam said. “All we are doing is presenting the content in harmony and in tune with the user.”
Penn xLAB also works on children’s toys, making 3-D printed Legos that light up to guide children, and its relationship with Comcast may allow for partnerships with some of the company’s verticals in the future.
The team is planning to display its progress at a public DesignPhiladelphia event on Oct. 14.
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