Fancy Listening in on the Chat between Two Beer Mats? STUDENTS from Various Fields of Interest Have Been Developing Technologies to Add an Extra Dimension to Audio and Visual Performance, from Interactive Lighting Systems to Beer Mats That Talk. JOHN HILL Discovers What They've Been Working on Ahead of Tonight's Culture Lab Jam 45 Event

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AMAN walks into a bar, orders a drink and plonks his glass down on a beer mat. All of a sudden, the beer mat starts chatting with the mat next to it, and a slug-trail of conversation slithers across the bar which develops into full-blown flirting.

Stop me if you've heard this one. While this scene isn't the type of thing you'd expect to see until at least your 10th gin, it's one of the interesting things on show tonight when Newcastle's Culture Lab plays host to Jam 45 from 7pm.

The event, which costs pounds 5 to enter, is a showcase of the technologies developed by those who pop in and out of Culture Lab, a Newcastle University building hosting "an eclectic research culture" of PhD students of various disciplines.

Its areas of research include narration and interaction, performance and technology and visual and auditory display technologies, and it has attracted students with backgrounds ranging from fine art to computer science. Human computer interaction PhD student Tom Bartindale, who has a background as a sound and light technician, says: "Hopefully it will show people that there are interesting things happening in the performance space. The public can interact with this stuff and it could be a real eyeopener." Bartindale's talking beer mats are a relatively new creation. He adapted the technology with fellow Culture Lab participant Jack Weeden after noting the all-too-common scenes of disparate groups clustering in a bar in Germany.

The beer mats can "talk" as a result of the installation of cameras which sense the positions of mats with markers on the underside.

As a result, when a mat is placed on the table, pre-programmed text and graphics including jokes, chat-up lines and banter snake from one mat to another and back on an interactive bar surface. The mats are given their own personality, from highly extroverted to nervous. Bartindale says: "It's a quite simple device where you put beer mats down and the system randomly decides whether your beer mat is male or female and how flirty it is and they start chatting to each other. If your beer mat really likes the other one a little heart might pop up, but they can also stop talking and start chatting to another one.

"We're hoping to break the ice and prompt people to talk to others."

Jam 45 also features duelling iPhones, Novak VJs Andrew Nixon and Elliot Thompson road-testing the Waves VJ system, and even a twist on ping pong called Daft Pong, which plays different Daft Punk samples depending on where players are on the table.

Bartindale is also showcasing an interactive table on which the public can alter the lighting in the room, from ambient lighting to stage lamps.

He says: "Anything that you do on the device will affect the rest of the room so you've got interaction between private and public spaces.

"Multiple people can use it at the same time. On previous interfaces you tend to find that either a person will take control of a specific area like a space in the venue and other people will fill around the edges, or a person will be in control of one type of lighting.

"They're altering real-life environmental factors. They can do it completely wrong and make everyone feel a bit funny or they can make the room look really good. You don't know what will happen until that day."

Bartindale notes that while multitouchscreen technology has been around for a while in technology terms, those developing for the technology are still working to fine-tune a language which allows the public to understand which movements produce a given result.

He says: "People like Microsoft have had to incrementally bridge the gap between keyboard system and touch system.

"You can't just jump to that level where you're asking whether you need buttons.

"On a normal computer, copy and paste is an extremely common facility, but when you haven't got a keyboard or a mouse, what's the best way to perform that task? …


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