24.05.18

Walls can sense touch and gesture after 3 coats of paint

Wall++, a system that cheaply transforms entire walls into touchscreens, is the brainchild of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research.

Dubbed “smart walls”, the approach uses conductive paint and electronics to transform walls, at the cost of $20 (approximately €17) per sq m, into surfaces that can sense human touch and detect gestures as well as the use of appliances. 

According to Chris Harrison, assistant professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), walls are not really considered further than something to separate spaces or hold up pictures or shelves, despite usually being the largest surface in a room. Wall++ would allow users to place or move light switches or controls to the most convenient place.

The major benefit of the system however, is its ability to monitor activity in the room, meaning it could sense gestures that could be then used to control videogames for example. Lights could be adjusted when a TV is switched off or it could alert people in other rooms to things like a washing machine finishing or an electric kettle boiling.

It means, according to Harrison, that “walls become active parts of our living and work environments”. And the system is so cheap that its use in a building could be extensive. 

Furthermore it’s easy to apply using simple tools and without special skills. Masking tape is first used to create a cross-hatched pattern on a wall, creating a grid of diamonds. Two coats of conductive paint is then applied with a roller, the tape removed and electrodes connected. A final top coat of standard latex paint improves durability and hides the electrodes.

Wall++ was presented at CHI 2018. At, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 21 to 26 in Montreal, Yang Zhang, a Ph.D student in the HCII, outlined the sensing approach to attendees. He noted that while Wall++ hasn’t been optimised for energy consumption it should consume about as much power as a standard touchscreen. 

In addition to Zhang and Harrison, the research team included HCII Professor Scott Hudson, and Alanson Sample and Chouchang (Jack) Yang of Disney Research.