Touche' can turn just about anything into a high-definition touch controller.
They gave us theme-park spectacles like robotic talking birds and a reanimated Abraham Lincoln with audio animatronics. They invented a film technique that can place an audience in the middle of a circle of movie screens to give them a 360 degree view of the world. They even developed the predecessor to surround sound. Now Disney's Imagineering research teams have created a way to turn the world into a touch controller.
The latest creation coming out of Disney Research is a new form of sensing technology that could turn anything, not just the screen of your phone or trackpad of your laptop, into a sort of touch screen. The technology would allow engineers to even turn the human body into a controller.
Touché is the work of a trio of scientists headed up by Disney Research Pittsburgh's Ivan Poupyrev.
Poupyrev, who helped develop the technology used on the PlayStation Vita's special touch-sensitive back panel when he was at Sony, tells Polygon that the Touché technology has a myriad of potential uses including some for video games.
Current touch, or capacitive sensing technology only measures when an object is touched, but Touché, Poupyrev explains, is designed to measure how a person is touching an object. It can even measure how a person is holding their hand or even standing when they touch an object.
"My long-term vision was to create technology that would make the world alive."
The technology is similar to what the iPhone uses, relying on the ability to sense when a human finger, which conducts electricity, touches it by monitoring a single frequency. But in the case of Touché it measures changes in a spread of frequencies. Each frequency reacts differently to different sorts of materials. Touché then takes that much more complex information and uses it to create a much more detailed idea of what is touching it, how it is being touched and changes in touches.
The idea for this new technology came to Poupyrev about two years ago.
"As user interface designers and developers we are always designing input devices, keyboards, remote controls, buttons, sliders, et cetera," he said. "But I always felt that this complicated things and cluttered our world. So my long-term vision was to create technology that would make the world alive, where everything is responsive and reactive to the user in a good, ‘smart' way."
He said he was reading a paper on the properties of light when he started thinking about X-rays and how, perhaps, capacitive sensing could be used in the same way: to create an image of sorts of the thing touching a device. The key was moving away from using just a single frequency, which has been the method used for the past 40 years.
"What if we change the frequency of the signal used in capacitive sensing, could we see inside of the user through the finger touching the sensor?" he asked himself at the time. "That was the starting point."
What made the technology feasible, Poupyrev said, is that we now have very powerful microprocessors and signal generation chips that are very inexpensive.
"We are using the same hardware components that are used in inexpensive consumer electronic devices and even toys," he said. "This is really a game changer."
In a video released earlier this month, Poupyrev and his team show off a variety of example uses, like using the technology to allow a person to control their music player by touching their fingers together, or to allow a couch to sense when a person sits to watch TV or lays down to sleep, and then turn on the television or turn off the lights.
Poupyrev, whose team is working to making the tech better, faster and cheaper, couldn't get into specifics for how the technology will be used. But he did say that Disney Research partners are already hard at work on creating "various Disney products and experiences" with the technology.
While the team hasn't spoken to any game developers yet, Poupyrev says it's just a matter of time before we see Touché coming to games.
Video game controllers continue to iterate at a dizzying pace. Standard, single-stick joysticks, once the key controller for video games, gave way to the rise of gamepads in the 80s and thumbsticks in the 90s. Motion-controlled games were made popular with the release of Nintendo's Wii followed by the Kinect for the Xbox 360 and Move for PlayStation 3.
"What if we ... could see inside of the user through the finger touching the sensor?"
Gaming on the iPhone and iPad lean heavily on touchscreens and Nintendo's Wii U will include a tablet controller that uses just about all of these methods – from motion and touch, to buttons and thumbsticks – to play.
Poupyrev, who helped create a new form of touch controller for the back of Sony's PlayStation Vita, can see the uses this new tech will have in gaming.
"There are obvious and straightforward possibilities, such as creating game controllers that ‘know' how you hold them," he said. "However, the key here is what game designers can do with this technology. I think a lot can be done, but I am not a game designer so I do not want to speculate."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come.Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.