Responsive Workbench

© ; wolf

(collective) Monika Fleischmann | Wolfgang Strauss

Responsive Workbench ,
Co-workers & Funding
Directed by Wolfgang Krüger, Wolfgang Strauss, Monika Fleischmann, Bernd Fröhlich.
Team Responsive Workbench 1.0: Manfred Berndtgen, Christian A. Bohn, Heinrich Schueth, Thomas Sikora, Josef Speier, Gerold Wesche, Juergen Ziehm
  • RWB Video
    715 × 822
  • RWB Video
    720 × 576

The Responsive Workbench is an evolution of the interactive table interface in Berlin-Cyber City, which inspired physicist Wolfgang Krüger's Responsive Workbench idea. The first prototype was created in 1993 in the VisWiz group of GMD - Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung. Fleischmann and Strauss directed this production as part of their Art & Science Fellowship at GMD and KHM – Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln. Their artistic interest was the invention of a digital work table for the design of three-dimensional objects with the hands, i.e. thinking with the hands, similar to the plastic work of sculptors.

A projector and mirror system is used to display computer-generated three-dimensional data on a horizontal tabletop. Lightweight stereoscopic shutter glasses are used to view these images in three dimensions. To view the virtual environment from the correct perspective, a magnetic tracking system follows the navigator's head in real time. A pair of data gloves or a stylus pen can be used to interact with objects on the tabletop environment.

What is special about the Responsive Workbench is that it offers an interface that redirects the usual view on a small, isolating screen into a three-dimensional, discursive data space for multiple viewers. All of the participants see the same thing at the same time, but individual points of view are also possible. Instructions for the computer can be given by voice using speech recognition technology.

Similar to Picasso's light drawings, Caltech student Steven Schkolne implemented Tracing the Line of Thought for drawing with the hand in the air on the Responsive Workbench. Using motion detection, he created a 3D painting system. The path of the hand in space is transformed into a geometric line that floats in space. This aerial drawing enables spatial design as thinking by hand.

It can be said that the development of the Responsive Workbench would not have been possible without the artists and designers who were at the forefront of the project. It was only the prototype that led to a joint project between Stanford University and the GMD. In 1993, the patent was rejected by the German Patent Office. Only the design of the projection could be protected.
However, Responsive Workbench was selected for its outstanding contribution at Siggraph in Orlando in 1994, and further showcased for several weeks at the Disney EPCOT center. EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and within the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando proactively presents New Prototypes for the Future, as in the case of GMDs’ Responsive Workbench.

In collaboration with Pat Hanrahan of Stanford University, the stage was set for further development on an American scale. Support for the project has been in the form of a grant from Interval Research Corporation. DARPA and NASA provided additional support for specific visualization applications. Donations of equipment have been provided by Silicon Graphics Computer Systems and by Fakespace. Inc.

In Germany, there have been collaborations with BASF on molecular design and with Mercedes on virtual wind tunnel testing of car designs. The artists had the idea that there was money to be made with the Responsive Workbench. But the end result has been that these companies have built their own work benches with no compensation of any kind.

It wasn't the scientists but the artists who discovered an important historical reference after the realization of the Responsive Workbench, namely Vannevar Bush's analogous concept of the MEMEX Memory Extender. Bush's vision was to use Memex to provide machine assistance to human memory and associative thinking.
Back in 1993, the Responsive Workbench anticipated the interactive table paradigm as a discursive interface. Just three decades later, in 2023, Illumetry, a U.S.-based company, introduced the Illumetry EOS, a 65-inch holographic display. Active stereo shutter glasses are used to interactively view, but not edit, three-dimensional presentations.
  • subjects
    • Art and Science
      • algorithms
  • technology
    • displays
      • electronic displays
    • hardware
      • data gloves
    • software
      • C++
      • SGI Onyx
      • Softimage
Technology & Material
HW: SGI Onyx Reality Engine 2, Tracking Systems, Beamer, Workbench
SW: SGI GL + Performer, In-House Software

Computer-generated stereoscopic images are projected onto a horizontal tabletop display surface via a projector-and-mirrors system, and viewed through shutter glasses to generate the 3D effect. A 6DOF tracking system tracks the user's head, so that the user sees the virtual environment from the correct point of view. A pair of gloves and a stylus, also tracked by the system, can be used to interact with objects in the tabletop environment.