Touchy, touchy! New tech turns anything into a touchpad

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are behind amazing invention they call Electrick
touchpad drums This 3D-printed drumpad was made touch sensitive using a new technology called Electrick. (Carnegie Mellon University)

Touch screens and touchpads are pretty much everywhere these days. They're on phones and tablets, public service machines and science exhibits. You've grown up having them all around you.

That's why it's funny to think that only 20 years ago, this was a brand new technlogy that was rarely seen in public. And it also leaves us a little blind to the fact that there are all kinds of things in our world that are not yet touch sensitive. But that could change quickly, thanks to a new invention out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It's called Electrick, and it is able to turn nearly anything into a touch sensitive device, regardless of size and shape.

A cheat sheet on the touchpad

Human beings conduct electricity. We are conductors! Simply put, this means that electricity flows through our bodies easily. A touchpad uses this scientific fact to tell when it is being touched by a person.

Here's how it works:

A mild electric charge runs across the pad. When you touch it with your finger, you suck up some of that charge into your body. (Why? Because you're a conductor!) On the simplest touchpad — one that works as an on/off switch — knowing that the charge had been lowered is enough to make something happen. For exampe, a light turns off, or a screen comes on. (It also shows why something like fabric or plastic — both of which are not conductors — can't be used to operate a touch screen.)

But most touchpads and screens have sensors all around them that pinpoint exactly where and how you have touch it. That's the technology that allows you to draw pictures, swipe left or right, or press different buttons on a screen.

Carbon is the key

touchpad paint guitar

Spraying a special paint on this guitar made its surface touch sensitive. (Carnegie Mellon University)

Unfortunately, standard touch screen technology is expensive and works best on flat surfaces. But Electrick is looking to change that. It may not be as accurate as what you find on a smartphone (that kind of precision is still at its best on smaller, flat surfaces), but it can turn everything from a favourite plastic toy to an entire wall into a touch surface.

The key is in using material loaded with carbon, which conducts electricity. The researchers covered all sorts of objects in either a thin sheet called velostat (which is loaded with carbon), or using a carbon conductive paint. Basically, this now turns any surface into something that can conduct electricity. And by placing electrodes around the surface of the object, they can read how and where the object is being touched, similar to a touchpad. They can even make a 3D-printed object touch sensitive, as long as it is printed out of carbon-infused materials!

What does this mean?

touchpad dog

You can poke this dog on the nose...and the computer will know it! (Carnegie Mellon University)

While Electrick isn't as precise as standard touch screens, it allows people to cheaply turn all kinds of things into touch sensitive objects. It can be used on nearly anything you could imagine!

You can paint a entire wall and turn it into a light switch. You can make a steering wheel into something to operate a car's GPS system. And inventors can make all sorts of fun new prototype devices, such as toys that act as an interface to apps and games. Guitars, tables, action can even use it on...Jell-O? Yep!

If you're feeling really curious, this video shows off Electrick in all its glory. Super cool stuff!

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