The Garibaldi Project has created a way for scholars to interact with a work of art that is too fragile and too large for routine study.  Yesterday, I sat in on a forum presentation of this Brown University project.  The project is a collaboration with Microsoft Research and the British Library, using a Microsoft Surface installation along with large screen projection to create a way to explore this historical piece of art along with related documents.
The Girabaldi Panorama is a scroll over 4′ tall and 273′ wide, painted in watercolor on both sides — unrolled, it would almost stretch the length of a football field.  It tells the story of Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi in a series of images.  The format was a precursor to modern cinema and was likely set up with a systems of cranks to present a section at a time with a voice over.  As a historical artifact, the panorama is very fragile and scholars have limited access, but Brown University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi envisions the library as a dynamic and transformative learning center and has worked to help create access to the work in this innovative project.

As part of the project, Italian Studies Professor Massimo Riva has students use the technology in a classroom setting.  He sees the library of the 21st century as a laboratory, “an experimental place.”  He highlighted that “in teaching a lot of ideas are generated… students add to the possibilities.”  Students have annotated areas of the panorama with historical documents, as well as creating navigation point that allow you to skip to specific areas of the panorama.

The technical research and implementation of the project is led by Professor Andries van Dam, who pointed out that “you can use things differently, you can create differently if you have a different form factor.” He believes that “it is vital for libraries to be providing leadership in creating the best of virtual and physical places.”

The screen is multi-touch. In addition to allowing you to pan and zoom with natural gestures, you can clip sections of the panorama by holding down two fingers at the corners of the area you want to clip.  You can can then keep that section for comparison with another part of the panorama and if you toss it to the top of the surface, it will appear on the large presentation screen.

The Surface includes 5 cameras (mounted under the surface) and computer vision technology which detect objects placed on the surface. This allowed the student programmers to create a magnifying glass effect when two physical objects that look like small inkwells are placed on the surface. The Surface can also detect a hand before it touches the screen, and I found it effective that there was hover feedback where the area that I was about to touch was highlighted.

One detail that I enjoyed was the use of a pie menu to provide a selection of controls. The lines connecting the options were animated to provide a visual cue that you need to slide your finger along the surface to select an option.

(I found more photos and details about the user interface features on Eric Havir’s blog.)

What do you think?