Touche — a project out of Disney Research — uses a new form of sensing technology that builds on the capacitive touchscreens we have grown accustomed to in smartphones and iPads. Capacitive sensing technology picks up the electrical signal your finger emits at a single frequency, in essence detecting only whether a person is, or is not, touching a surface. Touche goes one step further and detects not just if — but how — you are touching a surface.

Using a range of frequencies, each of which responds uniquely to different materials, Touche creates a “capacitive profile” which is more complex than a binary touch/no touch detection system. Touche proposes a “swept frequency capacitive sensing technique” which detects the act of touching while also recognizing the complexities of that interaction: if an object has been pinched or grabbed, been grazed by one finger or two — Touche knows. It can also sense what it is being touched by (a human hand, a metal utensil) and process changes in touch.

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of Touche is its ability to turn virtually any surface into a touchscreen of sorts. In a recently released video, Disney demonstrated how it could turn objects like tables and doorknobs, as well as water and even the human body, into “multi-touch, gesture recognizing interfaces.” Indeed, the demo suggested one possible use for the technology would allow a person to interact with their smartphone simply by making gestures on their body rather than having to reach into their pocket to fish out the phone. Others have also suggested practical, and even life-saving, functions for the technology, like using it to detect if a child’s head has slipped beneath the bath water and automatically draining the tub.

The uses for Touche are seemingly endless, which begs the question — when and for what purposes will Disney patent this latest technology? While Disney may take advantage of the computing, gaming, and other entertainment-based applications of Touche, most of the imagined uses thus far (even in Disney’s own demo) were not in the media conglomerate’s wheelhouse. For example, teaching a child to use proper ustensils and programming office doors to indicate when employees are busy or have left for the day hardly seem like services we expect from Disney. With that in mind, for whom and to what end Disney’s patent leaves Touche technology available is worth keeping an eye on.

– Katie Kuhn

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