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This Spray-Paint Technique Can Make Any Surface A Touchscreen

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Chalkboard paint turns surfaces into chalkboards. Magnetic paint turns surfaces into magnets. Now, touchscreen paint could turn surfaces into touchscreens. A group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have been turning all kinds of things into touchscreens, from blank walls to Play-Doh sculptures.

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The technique lets you turn even irregular objects into touch-sensitive devices.

Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me

The researchers say it would be way too expensive to use regular touchscreen technology, like the kind we use for smartphones and tablets, on large or weirdly shaped objects. So they came up with a much more affordable and easy-to-use way to add tech to just about anything. It's called Electrick. They describe their invention as a "low-cost and versatile sensing technique that enables touch input on a wide variety of objects and surfaces, whether small or large, flat or irregular."

"To enable Electrick, objects must either be made from an electrically conductive material, or have a conductive coating," the researchers wrote in their paper presented at the CHI 2017 conference. "The latter can be easily and cheaply applied through e.g., painting, allowing for large touch surfaces (e.g., walls, furniture) at under $1 per square foot of interactive area."

Once the material, whatever it is, becomes conductive, it's installed with electrodes so it can start its new life as a touchscreen. According to a CMU media release, "They did this by using electric field tomography—sequentially running small amounts of current through the electrodes in pairs and noting any voltage differences." That is to say, your finger's touch interrupts the current, which signals a computer to perform whatever task you've told it to. That can be anything from flipping a switch to making a noise.

The first step is to apply electrically conductive paint to the object.
Once electrodes are applied, the object becomes touch sensitive.

For Hobbyists and Innovators

The downside to the technology is that it's not as accurate as the touchscreen on your smartphone or tablet. However, the researchers say it's accurate within about a centimeter. According to CMU researcher Yang Zhang, that means some great uses might include "a button, slider or other control" like an on/off switch. That could be useful for both regular people wanting to add functionality to inanimate objects—say, touching a wall to turn on a light—and companies looking to enhance their manufacturing. It's so easy to apply, researchers say, that a 3D-printed material could be easily made into a touchscreen during the regular manufacturing process.

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