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NSERC Digital Surface Software Application Network


Surface computing environments, non-traditional digital display surfaces that include multi-touch screens, tabletops and wall-sized displays are increasingly common in the working world and the classroom, and are now appearing in the home. Surfaces have natural advantages for a wide variety of emerging computational activity. They naturally support group work and collaboration, provide space for working with large data sets and suggest interconnections between multiple devices to form multi-surface environments (MSE). In the next decade, digital surfaces will be the basis for new social computing applications and will create new and innovative markets that go far beyond existing personal computing paradigms.

The power provided by digital surfaces, however, will only have a substantial impact on businesses and homes when software developers can easily and efficiently create innovative applications for these environments. Application development for a digital surface is dramatically different from development for a standard PC platform, and current software developers (or application engineers) do not have the processes, tools or conceptual outlook required to successfully and cost-effectively design and develop applications for digital surfaces. NSERC Digital Surface Software Application Network (SurfNet) will provide these missing links by combining specific research projects with a continual focus on actually developing surface applications in collaboration with a large number of industry partners. It is this engineering focus that sets SurfNet apart from other groups working on surface computing.

Network Structure

The Network is organized around three research themes:

  1. Application Interface Design for Surface Computing Platforms;
  2. Agile Processes for Surface Application Development; and
  3. Software Architecture and Design for Digital Surfaces.

Within these themes, we will prototype new surface-based software in four vertical markets, represented by four application areas. This focus on vertical markets provides industrial relevance and linkages, and will ground our research on surfaces around real world opportunities and constraints.

Application Area 1: Planning, Monitoring, and Control Environments. Surfaces allow groups to simultaneously view and manipulate large, multi-dimensional data. This improves collaborative decision making and problem solving in complex, time- and safety-critical environments.

Application Area 2: Learning, Gaming and New Media. Digital surfaces create new opportunities for learning, gaming and other new media applications.

Application Area 3: Software Team Rooms. Developing software is an artifact-driven and highly collaborative activity that is increasingly geographically distributed. MSEs create visual workspace surfaces linked together in spite of distance barriers. The promise is that distant-separated teams can collaborate more productively and can thus develop better quality software.

Application Area 4: Digital Homes. Digital surfaces can serve social aims in the household such as enhancing communication with distant friends and relatives, assisting home members to track domestic information, or help inhabitants monitor and regulate the settings of a “smart home.”

The management office for SurfNet is located at the University of Calgary’s Department of Computer Science. Frank Maurer, the network’s director and principal investigator, is joined by a dozen top researchers from seven universities (University of Calgary, University of British Columbia, University of Saskatchewan, Carleton University, Queen’s University, University of Waterloo and McGill University) and over three dozen industry partners, many with expertise in our application areas.

Research Objectives

SurfNet will translate the exciting potential of surface computing into the knowledge and supporting software required to develop robust systems that support real-world activities, environments and end-users. SurfNet will integrate real application functionality with surface-specific interaction techniques. This will lead not only to world class research in both human computer-interaction (HCI) and agile software engineering (SE), but will also allow us to explore the integration of, and synergies between, these two branches of computer science.

Together with our industrial partners, the SurfNet team will conceptualize future products for our targeted vertical markets. We will use these ideas to investigate new techniques, processes and tools that afford the effective and efficient development of surface applications. We will verify the viability of our research results by building application prototypes in collaboration with the industrial partners.

Part of SurfNet's goal is to enhance the relationship between industry and academics, and to train highly qualified personnel (HQP). As each application area is partnered with one or more major industrial partners, we not only have access to the latest technology, but we have access to real-world environments in which we can test and evaluate our results. By testing our applications in these settings, we can refine them according to real user needs. Close ties with industry also allows for a more relevant learning experience for our students. Our network partners will then expand upon our solutions and help make them widely available to Canadians and international markets. To encourage this relationship, we will cultivate student internships with our partners and foster partner employee involvement with the academic research.


Digital surfaces will only be as effective and productive as the software applications that run on them. Now that digital surface hardware is becoming available, the time is ripe to cultivate their many potential capabilities. Theme 1 will greatly improve human interactions with digital surfaces, yet developing such applications for digital surfaces and MSEs is currently a time-consuming and costly endeavour resulting in one-off systems. Themes 2 and 3 will address this problem and will move surface application development from an art accessible to only a few highly trained people to development as an engineering discipline accessible to more average developers.

The outcomes of the network will position our industrial partners at the forefront of an emerging market of substantial size. By investing in this network, Canada is poised to become an international leader in shared interactive digital surfaces technologies and application development processes.

Some expected benefits from the network are listed below:

  • Expansion of the range of applications for which digital surfaces can be used by developing and perfecting their related capabilities.
  • Opportunity for Canadian companies to effectively and efficiently develop applications for digital surfaces.
  • Creation of long-lasting working relationships between Canada’s research institutions, industry partners and government for future technology transfer and collaboration efforts.
  • Creation of new vertical markets for surfaces that will generate Canadian economic activity.
  • Development of new software prototypes that will advance the industry to the next stage of digital surfaces technology.
  • Expansion of digital surfaces for more demographically diverse user groups.
  • Training of HQP in this domain will provide Canada with the workforce needed to be a world leader in surface development.
  • Creation of a substantial number of surface application prototypes that can be transferred to and commercialized by our industrial partners.
  • Creation of frameworks and toolkits that will let companies develop surface applications more effectively, and thus provide a basis for others to go beyond the results of the network.


Frank Maurer
Tel.: 403-220-5454
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