If you've ever sat down to a dish of Jell-O and wished that it was a touchscreen control , Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has got your back. A team of scientists at the CMU's Future Interfaces Group is working on a new technology called Electrick that uses a can of spray paint to turn almost any surface – including walls, toys, tools, furniture, steering wheels, and the popular gelatin dessert – into an interactive control.

Currently, touch controls are confined mostly to small, flat surfaces like smartphones or tablets. Larger versions are very expensive to build, and irregular ones are experimental and rely on complicated workarounds, like cameras and algorithms that are not very reliable and raise privacy issues.

CMU's Electrick takes a different approach by using a common tech called electric field tomography. In this, an object is sprayed with an electrically conductive coating, including conductive plastics or carbon-loaded films. Electrodes are then hooked around the perimeter of the surface and a current is applied at one point while the voltage at the receiving electrodes is monitored. When touched, this alters the outgoing voltages and the system can deduce the location of the touch within about a centimeter.

Electrick isn't as accurate as conventional touch surfaces, but it is sufficient to act as a button or slider. So far, it's been used on various test objects, including a 4 by 8 ft (1.2 by 2.4 m) drywall sheet, a steering wheel, toys, a guitar, Play-Doh, and a gelatin mold of a brain. In addition, it was used on a smartphone case to turn it into a game controller that can be customized by the user.

According to PhD student Yang Zhang, Electrick is simple enough to be used by hobbyists and is suitable for manufacturing using spray coating, vacuum forming, casting, and 3D printing. It can also take a protective coating to make it more durable.

The results of the CMU research will be presented at CHI 2017 in Denver, Colorado.

The video below discusses the Electrick technology.

View gallery - 11 images