Oct. 16, 2012 at 2:56 PM ET
Practically every phone and laptop coming out these days has a touchscreen, a touchpad, or both — but this "Magic Finger" device lets you treat any surface as touchable, from your desk to your own skin.
There are already mobile mice that track easily on any surface, but this experimental device, built by researchers at the Universities of Toronto and Alberta, has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It uses a small camera to optically track the surface it's on, which means it can be used as a mouse, but it also has a second, more high-definition camera.
The second camera gets a good look at what the device is touching, and can recognize almost two dozen different textures and respond accordingly. Check your email by touching your shirt, or create a blank document by touching a sheet of paper — or combine this recognition factor with other gestures to enable all kinds of actions. Move your finger up or down on the desk to adjust your music's volume, for instance, or left and right to change the track.
And that's not all: the camera can also recognize tiny patterns like miniature QR codes, essentially allowing buttons and actions to be printed on to paper or stickers. And the team has a number of other potential applications, which they detail in this video:
At the moment the device is still very much just a prototype, and as you can see in the pictures and video, it must be hard-wired to a second device in order to function. But with devices like Google Glass able to pack lots of functionality into a small package, a self-contained version of the Magic Finger isn't hard to imagine.
The research was presented at the UIST conference in Cambridge, and is a product of Autodesk Research. You can read more or download the paper itself (with many additional pictures and documentation) at the project's webpage.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.