Conductive Spray Paint Can Turn Any Surface Into a Touchscreen

conductive spray paint touchscreen Carnegie mellon
Spray paint developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University can turn irregular-shaped objects like steering wheels into touchscreen devices. Electrick

The responsiveness of touchscreens makes them exceptionally useful—whether it's at airport check-ins or for fast food restaurant orders—but most can only be found on flat surfaces made of glass. A new technique to transform almost any object into a touchscreen could soon change this.

Researchers from the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, announced Monday that they have developed a system called Electrick, which effectively coats an object with a touchscreen using spray paint that conducts electricity.

By attaching electrodes to the coated objects, a process called electric field tomography allows an algorithm to measure disruptions to the flow of electricity on the surface when a finger is pressed to it.

Electrick is able to detect the location of a finger touch to an accuracy of one centimeter, meaning it can sense virtual buttons, sliders and other controls can be sensed. The researchers used a prototype of an interactive smartphone case to explore other potential uses, such as opening applications or creating a game controller.

"For the first time, we've been able to take a can of spray paint and put a touch screen on almost anything," said Chris Harrison, head of the Future Interfaces Group.

They have already demonstrated the technology on irregular-shaped objects, ranging from guitars to steering wheels. The touch sensors mean new functionality—such as adding an effects pedal to the guitar, or a volume control on the steering wheel—can be added to the objects.

The technique means "small or large, flat or irregular" objects and surfaces can be "easily and cheaply" transformed, according to Yang Zhang, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University who was involved in the research.

"Electrick can enable new interactive opportunities on a diverse set of objects and surfaces that were previously static," Zhang said in a blogpost describing the technology.

Zhang and other researchers at the Future Interfaces Group will present Electrick at the ACM CHI 2017 conference in Colorado this week.