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Carnegie Mellon University research can make anything a touchpad

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Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Yang Zhang, 26, right, demonstrates Skin Track at Future Interfaces Group, in Oakland on Wednesday, June 29, 2016.
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Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. students Gierad Laput (left), 29, and Yang Zhang, 26, pose inside Future Interfaces Group in Oakland on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. The two work on human computer interactions with a focus on hardware and sensing including 'Electric Friction' and 'Skin Track.'
PTRSKINTRACKER03063016
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Yang Zhang, 26, right, demonstrates Electric Friction at Future Interfaces Group, in Oakland on Wednesday, June 29, 2016.
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A Jell-O brain demostrates Electrick, technology developed in the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
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A steering wheel demostrates Electrick, technology developed in the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
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An electric guitar demostrates Electrick, technology developed in the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

First they figured out how to turn your arm into a touchpad.

Now they’ve figured out how to turn almost anything into a touchpad.

Researchers in the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute have paired electrodes and paint, coatings and other materials that conduct electricity to turn walls, tabletops, steering wheels, toys and even Jell-O into touchpads that sense, track and react to the movement of your finger.

“We’re trying to bring touch to new places,” Chris Harrison, an assistant professor in the lab, said about the possibilities of their research, which the lab calls Electrick.

Harrison and his Ph.D. students presented their research Monday at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver.

“The room was stuffed. Every seat was gone, and people packed in the back,” Harrison said of the presentation.

READ the lab’s paper here .

Electrick uses off-the-shelf electrodes and paint, coatings and other materials already available to create touchpads. The paint, coating or materials all conduct electricity. Electrodes surround the surface and run and electric current across the surface.

“Most of the things we used, we just ordered off of Amazon,” Harrison said.

When the surface is touched, the nearby electrodes register a drop in voltage. That allows the computer to determine where the surface was touched. The technology is similar to how MRIs and CT scans produce images of the body, Harrison said.

Electrick has several applications. A wall wouldn’t need light switches if it were programmed to detect touch. Knobs and switches on a guitar could disappear. Toys could become interactive, talking when touched in certain places. Cars could incorporate more touch functions.

“Now you can use that whole dashboard as a multitouch touchpad,” Harrison said.

Harrison said Electrick builds conceptually on SkinTrack, wearable technology the lab presented last year that allows people to control their smartwatch touchpad on their arms. For SkinTrack, a series of sensors on the band of a smartwatch on one hand work with sensors on a ring worn on the other hand.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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