“Now we can turn any arbitrary wall surface into a touch-input surface,” says Shwetak Patel, professor of computer science and engineering and electrical engineering at the University of Washington (and a TR35 honoree in 2009), who was involved with the work. The next step, he says, is to make the data analysis real-time and to make the system even smaller—with a phone or a watch instead of a laptop collecting and analyzing data.
“With Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, people are starting to realize that these gesture interfaces can be quite compelling and useful,” says Thad Starner, professor in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing. “This is the sort of paper that says here is a new direction, an interesting idea; now can we refine it and make it better over time.”
Refining the system to make it more user-friendly will be important, says Pattie Maes, a professor in MIT’s Media Lab who specializes in computer interfaces. “Many interfaces require some visual, tangible, or auditory feedback so the user knows where to touch.” While the researchers suggest using stickers or other marks to denote wall-based controls, this approach might not appeal to everyone. “I think it is intriguing,” says Maes, “but may only have limited-use cases.”
Joe Paradiso, another professor in MIT’s Media Lab, says, “The idea is wild and different enough to attract attention,” but he notes that the signal produced could vary depending on the way a person wears the device that collects the signal.
Patel has previously used a building’s electrical, water, and ventilation systems to locate people indoors. Tan has worked with sensors that use human brain power for computing and muscle activity to control electronics wirelessly. The two researchers share an interest in pulling useful information out of noisy signals. With the recent joint project, Tan says, the researchers are “taking junk and making sense of it.”