When I Think About My Computer, I Touch Myself

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Disney / YouTube

No, eww, I don’t mean in the Divinyls sense — I’m talking about touching real-world objects like chairs or doorknobs, or even parts of your own body, say your ears, to signal your computer or other computing devices. A team at Disney Research and Carnegie Mellon University is working on just that: new detection technology capable of recognizing much more than the current “either you’re touching something or you’re not” model.

Disney calls its technology Touché, and describes it as “a novel Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing technique that can not only detect a touch event, but simultaneously recognize complex configurations of the human hands and body during touch interaction.”

(MORE: HomeOS: Microsoft Works on Bringing Smart Homes to the Masses)

Capacitive sensing by itself refers to conventional on/off touch mechanics. When you touch your smartphone today, for instance, it’s a binary relationship — you’re either touching the screen or you’re not. Touché, by contrast, can detect touch interaction across multiple frequencies (ergo the term “swept”), creating what Disney calls a “capacitive profile” containing significantly more information. With a capably programmed recognition engine, Touché can tell the difference not only between touching or not touching, but gestures performed on real-world objects, say pinching a doorknob as opposed to grasping it.

Disney says the technology would have all sorts of applications, from enhancements to existing touchscreen tech to broadening the way we interact with everyday materials. To illustrate the concept, researchers present several scenarios: The first, involving a doorknob, supports up to five interactions, including one-finger touch, two-fingers pinching, a “circle gesture” (thumb and forefinger encircling the knob) and full-on grasping. A second involves a person sitting at a table: Touché is able to detect whether the person has one or two hands on the table, as well as whether the person is using hands or elbows (a dream come true for manners-obsessed parents!).

In a third, Touché is used to illustrate the ability to detect one or multiple fingers touching or pinching a phone-like object, though it’s worth noting Apple and Sony already employ this sort of interfacing with existing capacitive technology. Sony’s PS Vita, for instance, uses a multi-touch capacitive touchscreen in concert with a rear touchpad that together can detect multiple finger input as well as gestures like pinching (two fingers, one on each screen).

But what’s arguably the most exciting about Touché is the fact that the tech doesn’t require metallic objects. In the demo video (above), a person with sensors attached to both arms and communicating to a computer wirelessly via Bluetooth demonstrates Touché’s ability to detect multiple forms of input, whether touching fingers from both hands (Touché can distinguish the number as well), clenching them together (recognized as “grasping”) or holding them over both ears (recognized as “cover ears”). Even wilder: Touché can make liquids touch-sensitive, recognizing input ranging from detecting one or more fingers in water to finger depth (touching the bottom of a water tank, say) and even a fully submersed hand.

What sort of practical applications are we talking? Disney says to imagine using Touché to train a child to spoon cereal from a bowl with utensils instead of fingers, or controlling a mobile music player — launching, adjusting volume, track selection — by performing different touch gestures on your body. Furthermore: Door handles that display messages (on a window-like screen) or that turn off the lights and lock up based on the way you touch the handle? A couch that turns on the television when it detects someone sitting, then dims the lights as they gradually recline? All possible, posits Disney.

Next stop: Disney will present the technology at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2012), taking place in Austin, Texas from May 5-10.