Patents

Microsoft bringing touchscreens to walls, clothes, and more

Microsoft Research has unveiled a pair of new projects aimed at bringing touch technology to a lot more places. Will they become real products?

On Monday Microsoft showed off a pair of research projects that are aimed at the multitouch technology that the public has fallen in love with on their smartphones and tablets and taking it beyond LCD screens to everyday surfaces.

The innovations come from Microsoft Research and were unveiled at UIST 2012, a conference on User Interface Software and Technology this week in Santa Barbara, California.

The first is called OmniTouch (right) and it uses a combination of a laser-enabled pico projector and a depth-sensing camera to provide a wearable touch interface that a user can turn on and then use on any virtually any surface, but will obviously work best on a flat surface.

Here's how Microsoft Research explains it:

"The early phases of this work raised some metaphysical questions. If any surface can act as an interactive surface, then what does the user interact with and what is the user interacting on? The team also debated the notion of turning everything in the environment into a touch surface. Sensing touch on an arbitrary deformable surface is a difficult problem that no one has tackled before. Touch surfaces are usually highly engineered devices, and they wanted to turn walls, notepads, and hands into interactive surfaces—while enabling the user to move about."

The prototype for OmniTouch uses a big, bulky, shoulder-mounted camera that would be impractical for anyone to wear today, but with cameras and microprocessors continuing to shrink dramatically, we can obviously imagine a day where you could have something like this emerge in a much less intrusive form, such as tech-infused shirt or jacket.

Here's a video of OmniTouch:

The second innovation is called PocketTouch and it is aimed at making smartphones receptive to touch gestures through fabric, such as a pocket, purse, or jacket. The idea is that sometimes people want to quickly interact with a smartphone without having to pull it out. Microsoft refers to PocketTouch as an "eyes-free" solution. Here's the description:

PocketTouch enables a rich set of gesture interactions, ranging from simple touch strokes to full alphanumeric text entry. Our prototype device consists of a custom multitouch capacitive sensor mounted on the back of a smartphone. Similar capabilities could be enabled on most existing capacitive touchscreens through low-level access to the capacitive sensor... Our results suggest that PocketTouch will work reliably with a wide variety of fabrics used in today’s garments, and is a viable input method for quick eyes-free operation of devices in pockets.

And, here's the video clip of it:

The Microsoft Research team noted, "Both OmniTouch and PocketTouch are evolutionary steps of a larger effort by Microsoft Research to investigate the unconventional use of touch in devices to extend Microsoft’s vision of ubiquitous computing."

It's terrific to see Microsoft innovating on multitouch since it's obviously a critical element of the future of computing. However, Microsoft Research has a track record of showing off lots of cool stuff that never comes to market. They need to follow the lead of IBM's prolific research devision, which is much better at commercializing and productizing its best innovations -- or at least maybe IBM only shows off stuff that has a reasonable path to becoming a real product. Still, in this case, it looks like Microsoft has a couple innovations that aren't just cute ideas.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

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