By Barry Levine / Mobile Tech Today. Updated May 22, 2014.
Forget dedicated touchscreens. A start-up called Metaio is now demonstrating an augmented-reality system that essentially turns any surface into a touchscreen.
The system utilizes regular and infrared cameras to detect heat left behind by touching a surface -- virtually any surface -- and integrating that with augmented reality to create a touch-sensitive surface.
This Thermal Touch interface provides a way for augmented reality users to interact with real-world surfaces, such as viewing a virtual chess board on a table and then, through Thermal Touch, actually reaching out and "moving" a virtual chess piece with your hand.
While other kinds of systems allow for tracking in space without this kind of technology, this system is being touted by Metaio as more precise in tracking a human heat signature.
Applications include virtual log-ons that only a user can see and use, live links in paper publications, or educational print publications that can show media when hotspots are touched -- all utilizing virtual touch and augmented reality viewers.
To enable this Thermal Touch system, an infrared camera, a visible light camera and a processing unit are required, plus an augmented reality viewer for completing the interactive setup. The company said the technology is still in R&D, and expects that it might take five years or more before it starts appearing as sensors in products.
It's conceivable that this kind of technology could be embedded in, say, a future generation of Google Glass, an Oculus virtual reality headset, or even in a smartphone.
Other researchers have also tried to turn the world into one large interface. Two years ago, for instance, Disney Research demonstrated ways to connect an electrostatic signal generator with a user, so that any object or surface in the same electrical field could be modified to create friction, which could generate interface commands.
Kinect, Holographic Displays
There have also been a variety of experiments using Microsoft's Kinect, such as one where a Kinect for Windows sensor is employed with a projector to detect movements on the projected image. Such technology has been shown by individual developers, as well as by Microsoft, which has demonstrated a shoulder-mounted projector that accomplishes the interaction.
One company, called Light Blue Optics, has used a full-color holographic laser projection display. Although dim ambient light is required, demonstrations have shown that the interaction is good enough so that a projected keyboard can be used effectively for typing.
Augmented reality -- the current term for virtual reality laid over the real world -- is springing up in places outside of Google Glass and Oculus. McDonald's, for instance, has developed an augmented FIFA World Cup reality app called McDonald's Gol!
The McDonald's iOS and Android app can incorporate physical objects in the viewer of a smartphone. It makes the packaging of an order of French Fries into a virtual soccer game, so that users can try to hit a ball into the goal on the packaging while avoiding various obstacles.