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)

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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