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By Meredith Hughes
Back a month or so ago, one of Corrales Comment’s readers was puzzled by all the action at Ideum, the touch table/screen software and hardware builder with two locations in the village. ‘How is this essential business?” he asked.

Its essential nature swiftly was verified by the Governor’s Office, as Ideum’s multi-touch tables and displays are used “by many government agencies, all branches of the U.S. military, national laboratories, municipalities and first responders. In addition, numerous other businesses considered essential by the State of New Mexico, such as the company’s customers in transportation, utilities, and medicine and research, rely on Ideum hardware.”

As the Ideum website puts it, “We are proud to support the government agencies, scientific institutions, municipalities, and first responders across the nation who rely on our hardware. In just the last few weeks, we’ve been working with the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, several national laboratories, police and fire departments, healthcare facilities, and utilities and other essential services. … Our hardware is being used for situational awareness, scientific visualization, telepresence and emergency response.”

Which means that company founder and chief Jim Spadaccini is not doing jigsaw puzzles at home. He’s working 50-plus hours a week, responding to change. “When these things happen,” he said, referencing COVID-19, “They change the world.”

And change ironically means that “touch” may no longer have the appeal it once did. A touch table in place in an education tent during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, a large interactive table for an exhibition called “The Great Inka Road” at the National Museum of the American Indian in DC, and many other projects here and abroad may be segueing to what sometimes is called “high fidelity hand gesture” units.

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Obviously, when people worldwide are wearing masks, and workers and other personnel are encased in full plastic body suits, touching is discouraged. “This is a real challenge because a lot of time and money has been invested in touch,” admitted Spadaccini, “And in a year or two it’s likely that touch exhibits will be back.”

And touch, whether for museums or corporations or national laboratories, is more efficient, according to Spadaccini, who has long worked with Intel and still talks with their engineers about twice a month. “From the start we have worked with organizations like Boeing, the U.S. Army, and a steady stream of clients from all branches of government.”

“Even the White House!” Sometime in 2016 a non-high security Ideum touch screen was installed right outside the Situation Room, the room made famous in 2011 by the photo of President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and others, observing the actions that led to the demise of Osama Bin Laden. Spadaccini has no idea if it is still there.

The U.S. Navy, a client for three to four years, just acquired an Ideum installation that determines where planes should be placed on an aircraft carrier. “For years naval personnel moved around tiny model planes to complete this task,” said Spadaccini.

He added that Ideum makes mobile versions of such gear, installed in travel cases, and “it’s pretty fun, because there are thousands of them around the world. They have secret lives.” Even cruise lines have them, for “situational awareness of engine rooms,” apparently.

But increasingly, touchless interfaces are key. One motion and gesture-based exhibit Ideum produced has been in place at the Albuquerque Biopark BUGarium since 2015. The $8,000 “Be A Bug” setup was donated by the company, and the idea for it is this: choose a critter, either the bee, the beetle or the damsel fly, and then see a life-sized mirror image of the bug which tracks and replicates your own movements using a Kinect sensor, developed by Microsoft. You then flap your wings and take a 60-second flight through a fanciful imagined environment to find food.

One flaw, though: the visitor must indeed touch a screen to choose what insect it wishes to be. A newer project called “Chow Time” for the Biopark’s Penguin Chill exhibition is all motion-directed. As Ideum describes it, “Although the imagery and content are different, the structure of ‘Chow Time’ is similar to ‘Be a Bug,’ with visitors swimming to find food and leaning to control their direction. However, we also added predators and other dangers to the environment, so guests need to avoid those unpleasant surprises. A special pose gesture in which guests raise a hand and lean prompts the penguin to spin to evade danger.”

The company points out, however, that both these exhibits, and others like them, are single-user. Highly educational and fun, too. The next stop seems clear: “multi-user motion-based exhibits and immersive environments.”

Here again, “moving from single to multiple users in a gesture-based experience presents intriguing challenges. Depending on scale, it may be necessary to use two or more more motion-sensing devices, and the data gathered by these sensors will need to be combined so that tracking is consistent across devices. A social exhibit space with numerous visitors roaming freely, and perhaps gesturing and pointing, can present formidable programming challenges as movements are detected by several devices simultaneously.”

Dinosaurs are behind a 2016 project using all of the above, which was installed at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. It’s called DinoStomp, and it’s uncertain whether visitors or dinosaurs are in charge.

A 2019 setup in Santa Monica at the Caton Children’s Museum moves from day to night and back again in a continuing cycle. “During the day, flocks of butterflies appear, along with a watchful frog and curious dragonflies. By nightfall, the butterflies leave and fireflies begin to appear.”

“The overarching concept is that some natural cycles, such as the movement of the sun and moon, can’t be controlled, while we can affect other natural events. All of the insects and animals in the experience are characters in a dynamic scene and are affected by motion and sound. If visitors are too active or loud, the butterflies and dragonflies fly away, the frog disappears into the water, and the fireflies stop flashing.”

While touch seemingly is touch-and-go right now, Spadaccini is happy to say that there have been no layoffs among the 45 employees of Ideum, and no reduction of hours. Software, exhibit design, and administrative staff are working remotely. Hardware builders are wearing masks and respecting distancing requirements.
“In this culture, we are not afraid of change,” said Spadaccini. “We reinvent ourselves so often.” Familiar with laser cutting of plastic, recently the company attempted to get into the manufacture of plastic masks for medical personnel, which it planned to donate, but there literally was no raw material available.

“We’re making adjustments, the software group is pivoting, we’re expecting a PPP, Paycheck Protection Program, loan soon, touchless is the primary focus, but thanks to existing clients —and we even are gaining new clients— we will keep everyone employed.”

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