Never mind touchscreen phones, tablets and TVs. Now virtually any material, including liquid water, can instantly become an incredibly sensitive, multi-touch interface thanks to an ingenious new sensory system designed by a scientist from Disney Research in Pittsburgh, PA, and collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Tokyo, Japan.
The system, called Touché, has already been demonstrated in a number of impressive practical prototypes created by the researchers — from a “smart doorknob” that can sense precisely how it is being gripped and lock or unlock itself accordingly, to a container full of water that can detect when a person’s hand is skimming the surface or completely submerged to even a person’s own body, which can be turned into an input for controlling the volume of a smartphone or other digital music player.
A “sensing couch” using Touché automatically detects when a user is sitting and turns on their TV, then adjusts the room’s lighting when the user reclines, finally turning the TV and lights off if the person falls asleep in front of their TV.
See all the prototypes in action in the following video:
The technology, which Disney and Carnegie Mellon researchers have outlined in an academic paper, was on May 7 given a “Best Paper,” award at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Austin, Texas.
Ivan Poupyrev, the Disney senior research scientist who first came up with the idea two years ago, explained to TPM via email the technology behind his team’s incredible multi-touch input system.
“The dream of any user interface researcher is to make the world alive, where everything is responsive and reactive to the user in a good, ‘smart’ way,” Poupyrev wrote. “It is a very hard problem to solve and a lot of people have been trying to find how can we make the world responsive yet not obstructed by buttons, touch screens, panels and etc.”
The way that Poupyrev and his two colleagues, Carnegie Mellon’s Chris Harrison and University of Tokyo’s Munehiko Sato, solved the problem, was by turning to a type of technology called Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing (SFCS), which depends upon an electrode, or a small electrical conductor, that can be attached to any object. A low power electrical signal is sent through this electrode by a wire attached to a power source.
When the electrically-conductive human body comes into contact any object to which the electrode has been attached, it forms a charge. Depending on where the human body is touching the object and how much of the body is touching the object, the signal alters across various electromagnetic frequencies.
The Touché system sweeps across a wide array of frequencies and hundreds of data points, and its software algorithms are able to distinguish from these just what is being touched, where and how much.
As such, because it is measuring signal frequency, the system requires that a material to be electrically conductive to be able transform it into a touch interface.
“Materials that cannot conduct electricity at all, e.g. wood or stones,” wouldn’t work on their own with the system, Poupyrev said.
But there’s a work around, as Poupyrev explained: “If you paint wood with copper-based conductive paint, then it will work perfectly. So the question is how much modification of materials you can afford.”
Even more astoundingly, Touché can already reliably distinguish between “categories” of users, detecting whether a child, an adult or even a pet dog or cat is the one doing the touching, and the varying responses of the device being touched can be customized accordingly.
“Of course sometimes it may make mistakes, but in general it was reliable,” Poupyrev said.
The effective range of the sensing area is around 50 centimeters for now, but it Poupyrev said that it can easily be increased by turning up the signal. He also told TPM that it took him and his colleagues about a year to develop the working prototypes shown off in their video, and that they have a patent pending on the work.
“A tiny detail would make a difference between having great working implementation and nothing working at all,” Poupyrev said.
As for what other companies or government agencies have contacted Poupyrev about using Disney’s fantastical new multi-touch, he declined to comment.
“I am afraid that we cannot disclose this information,” Poupyrev told TPM.