The future of sticks

With the current IT patents fiasco, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to patent sticks. So, just for the record, prior art exists, right up to using them for highly sophisticated 3d interfaces. I published my ideas on the future use of sticks as computer interfaces in 1991, but made no attempt to patent them. Sticks belong to everyone and all I did was to add a few pretty obvious electronics updates, so I’d hate for any company to try to steal this market, which should be left open to all. So doing my bit to protect the right to use sticks for everyone during the patents grabs, here is my original, and if need be I have the original signed paper version to prove prior art: shows the 1991 version I wrote while in BT, and it has been updated slightly a few times since.

Check the paper for some simple graphics if your imagination needs provoking, but here is a quick summary of the main points. 

Sticks are one of the most primitive tools. Humans have been using sticks for hundreds of thousands of years, so we are pretty good at it. Sticks are used for many very different purposes. Stick a few bristles on the end and you have a brush, make the end or edge hard and sharp and you have a chisel, an axe, a knife, a sword or scalpel, make it glow a bit and it becomes a light sabre. Hollow it out and you have a blowpipe, add a few bits to that and you have a gun. Hammers, sports rackets or clubs, many everyday objects can be approximated as a modified stick. Stick manipulation skills can be used as a base for many others.

Now let’s bring sticks into the realm of pads, and in particular 3D interfacing. Some pads already let you draw on them using small pointy sticks. It really isn’t very hard to extend that to 3d drawing. All you need is to be able to track both ends of a stick. Put a ball on each end of the stick, use a couple of LEDs and a receiver to spot where the reflections come from, and you’re there. The wii, xbox and playstation all have some basic 3d tracking and gesture recognition now, so it just needs slight adaptation to make it almost universally applicable.

There are lots of possible variations in the means of tracking the ends of a stick. You could use complex systems with gyros and dead-reckoning systems, but more easily and cheaply, you can use simple LEDs to illuminate the ends, and use quadrant photodiodes to triangulate them. Alternatively, raster scanning a light beam (from a laser or LED) with the direction encoded on the beam allows much greater precision – this sort of system is used in some missile guidance systems. Using multiple receivers or transmitters adds more precision still. If the balls at the end of the stick are striped, then the magnitude of the reflection will vary sinusoidally as the stick rotates, allowing the twist of the stick to be measured as well as orientation and location. Extra reflectors could be added to let the stick produce a curve. Two or more sticks could be used in combination to create planar or dynamic data. All this so far just uses a simple stick with reflectors. Adding electronics or smart materials to the stick, changing the colour of the ends to vary reflected spectrum or making them flash or pulse gives still further scope for extra data. You could go the whole hog, but then you’ve got a Wii remote.

All this allows a simple stick to be used as the basis for an extensive sculpting and drawing tool-kit  As 3d printers and virtual worlds become more important in everyday life, we will soon need lots of 3d interfacing, and I feel sure that stick-based tools will dominate.

We understand sticks. Let’s try to keep patents away from them.

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