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Posted at 10:19 AM ET, 05/07/2012

Disney may be on to something: New technology could bring objects to life

The Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kent Phillips / The Walt Disney Company - FTWP)
This piece originally appeared on the WaPo Labs Blog on May 7.WaPo Labs is the digital team at the Washington Post Company focused on innovation and experimenting with emerging technologies.

What do the following images have in common?

Dancing candlesticks. Marching brooms. Flying carpets. One brave little toaster.

If you guessed Disney, you’re right. The animation company has had a long history of featuring inanimate objects as anthropomorphic characters in its films, dating as far back as 1940’s Fantasia, when a sorcerer Mickey imbued an army of broomsticks with the magic of consciousness. Singing teacups and literate desk lamps are as much a part of the Disney universe as boisterous genies and redheaded mermaids – with one exception:

They are breaking free of the imaginary realm and could be coming to a home goods store near you.

A team of engineers from the U.S. and Japan, including two engineers from Disney Research, has pioneered a technology that could forever change the ways in which humans and inanimate objects interact by embedding electrodes in everyday devices.

The technology, called Touché, can sense electrical signals transmitted by a human body with much greater specificity than current touch screen technology can, which is only able to differentiate between “touch” and “no touch.” Touché can recognize a variety of postures and gestures, including “two-finger pinch,” “three-finger pinch,” “one elbow,” “two elbows,” and “all fingers touching like a plotting madman.” The electrodes can be embedded into nearly any object imaginable, from laptops to sofas to human bodies.

In a YouTube video entitled “Touché: Enhancing Touch Interaction on Humans, Screens, Liquids, and Everyday Objects,” Disney Research Hub engineers detail five examples of the technology’s application: to sense a doorknob being grasped, determine the posture of someone seated at a table, enhance traditional touch screen technology, sense the movements of a human body, and even discern specific movements in liquid, such as the submerging of a hand in a fish tank.

Touché engineers envision the technology being used in a variety of ways, such as “food training,” where a buzzer sounds if a child puts his hand in a bowl of cereal in place of a spoon, an “on-body music player,” where a user controls the volume of the music she is listening to through simple hand gestures, and a “sensing sofa” that adjusts a television and room lighting based on a user’s physical position.

The implications of touch sensitive technology are far-reaching, constrained only by the imagination of its designers and engineers – and taking into consideration that the innovative minds of Disney are at the helm, Touché’s practical applications could be endless. Forget “sensing sofas” and teaching kids to use forks – how about a shower that could adjust water temperature at the snap of a finger, or a DVD that could be paused by a pinch from across the room? How about a blanket that could sense the sleeping position of a baby, or a guitar that could teach an aspiring musician a chord progression?

How about dancing candlesticks and marching brooms?

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By Hannah Rubenstein  |  10:19 AM ET, 05/07/2012

Categories:  Morning Read, Technology

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