May 11, 2012 at 7:42 PM ET
Researchers have created a system called Touché that is capable of tracking touch input on nearly any kind of object — from a metallic doorknob to a tank of water. It works similarly to the way capacitive sensors like those in phones and tablets do: A touch by a finger is detected by a change in the current going through the surface. But while normal capacitive sensors only detect whether a touch is present or not, Touché can tell apart several different kinds of touches just by looking closely at the voltage changes.
It sounds a bit technical, but their video does an excellent job of explaining how the system works:
The applications of this are certainly fun to think about, and it seems to be both simple and reliable. A table that detects how many plates are on it, a bed that turns the lights off when you lie down but not when you sit, a jacuzzi that bubbles up when you step into it ... the possibilities are endless.
Touché doesn't require a metallic surface, clearly, but it does require that the surface or object can be wired for voltage detection and connected to a computer. But the connection part can be done wirelessly, and a wearable or portable voltage interpreter isn't hard to imagine; in fact, they show something like that in use in the video with a person controlling an MP3 player by tapping in different places on his arm.
The research was performed at Disney Research in Pittsburgh by Munehiko Sato, Ivan Poupyrev, and Chris Harrison. The full paper is available to be read here in PDF format.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.