Turn Anything into a Touchscreen With 'Electrick'

D-briefBy Nathaniel ScharpingMay 10, 2017 12:20 AM


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Buttons, who needs 'em? A new proof-of-concept technology from Carnegie Mellon University turns everyday objects into touch interfaces with an array of electrodes. Walls, guitars, toys and steering wheels come alive with touch sensitivity in their video, and it seems that the possibilities are pretty much endless. What could be next? Grocery store aisles? Whole buildings? Other people? Cell phones? The design is called Electrick, and it comes from Carnegie Mellon's Future Interfaces Group and takes advantage of the same principle that your smartphone screen. Because our skin is conductive, when we touch a surface with electricity running through it we alter the electric field in a predictable way. By coating objects with electrically conductive materials and surrounding them with electrodes, the team can triangulate the position of a finger based on fluctuations in the field. Combined with a microprocessor, they can train their program to translate swipes and taps into commands. They experimented with a few different application methods. Vacuum forming works for simple shapes, while a spray-on version coats even irregular objects, such as a guitar or a miniature Yoda head. Materials can also be custom molded or 3-D printed, and it appears that Electrick even works with Play-doh and jello. Some of the more practical applications include prototyping controller designs and modifying laptops and surfaces to run programs with a single touch, but the sky is really the limit here. Turn on your lights with the refrigerator. Play Halo with your coffee table. Change the channel with your cat (maybe not). You can imagine a future where any surface is a potential control device — and the attendant embarrassment when sitting down in the wrong place causes the blender to erupt. Their system is low-cost and widely applicable, they say, and the only downside at the moment is that the presence of an electromagnetic field from other powered objects nearby can interfere with the accuracy of the system. They are currently working on ways to get around that.

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