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[Image above] A new technique can turn even a Jello-molded brain into an interactive touch surface. Credit: Future Interfaces Group; YouTube

What will the future look like?

That question has long inspired scientists, artists, writers, directors, thinkers, and countless more daydreamers.

It’s hard not to wonder where the future will take us, especially in light of some of the incredible advances making headlines today—robots, self-driving cars, expanding space aspirations, and enhanced intelligence are undoubtedly going to change our future world in big ways.

In my imagination of the future, our built environment is completely touch interactive, from my walls to my TV to my car to my front door. And based on some new research, it looks like this future could soon be more reality than imagination.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have devised a technique called Electrick that can turn virtually any surface—including toys, guitars, entire walls, tables, steering wheels, and even Jello—into an interactive touchpad.

Whether using an already conductive surface or adding conductivity via coatings or materials, the team demonstrated how a combination of electric field tomography and computer hardware and software can turn nearly any surface into an interactive object in our increasingly connected world.

“For the first time, we’ve been able to take a can of spray paint and put a touch screen on almost anything,” Chris Harrison, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon and head of the Future Interfaces Group, says in a Carnegie Mellon press release.

How does it work? The system detects low-level currents flowing across a conductive surface at electrodes affixed to the edges of the surface. Like a normal touchscreen, the system senses a touch by detecting a disturbance in the electric current—like from a finger touching the surface, which draws a small amount of current away from the surface—and triangulates the position based upon the readings from each electrode.

Electrick uses readings from electrodes placed on the edges of a conductive surface to triangulate the position of a touch. Credit: Future Interfaces Group; YouTube

According to the team, the system is not super precise, but has an accuracy of about 1 cm, providing good enough resolution for simple touch and swipe functions.

The huge potential in the system lies in its versatility—the scientists have already demonstrated the impressive flexibility of the technique by turning entire sheets of drywall, irregularly shaped toys, steering wheels, 3-D printed objects, and even a Jello-molded brain into touch-sensitive surfaces.

The researchers recently presented their work at the 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver, Colo., May 6–11. The paper is titled “Electrick: Low-cost touch sensing using electric field tomography.”

Starting dreaming of all the possibilities—learn more about Electrick in the video below.

Credit: Future Interfaces Group; YouTube