Category Archives: Carnegie Mellon University

To spur innovation, teach A.I. to find analogies

A method for teaching artificial intelligence analogies through crowdsourcing could allow a computer to search data for comparisons between disparate problems and solutions, highlighting important—but potentially unrecognized—underlying similarities.

“Once you can search for analogies, you can really crank up the speed of innovation…”

The method could enable A.I. to search through databases of patents, inventions, and researcher papers, identifying ideas that can be repurposed to solve new problems or create new products.

As anyone who enjoyed watching TV’s MacGyver disarm a missile with a paperclip or staunch a sulfuric acid leak with a chocolate bar could tell you, analogies can provide critical insights and inspiration for problem-solving. Tapping huge databases of inventions could spur innovation, but doing so without the help of analogies is, well, like finding a needle in a haystack.

Computer scientists solved the analogy problem by combining crowdsourcing and a type of artificial intelligence known as deep learning. By observing how people found analogies, they obtained insights they used to train computer software to find even more analogies.

“After decades of attempts, this is the first time that anyone has gained traction computationally on the analogy problem at scale,” says Aniket Kittur, associate professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

“Once you can search for analogies, you can really crank up the speed of innovation,” says Dafna Shahaf, a computer scientist at Hebrew University. “If you can accelerate the rate of innovation, that solves a lot of other problems downstream.”

The research team will present its findings in a paper at KDD 2017, the Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Analogies have played a role in any number of discoveries. Italian microbiologist Salvador Luria conceived an experiment on bacterial mutation—which later earned him a Nobel Prize—while watching a slot machine. The Wright Brothers used insights about balance and weight acquired while building bicycles to help them achieve powered flight. A trick for removing a loose cork from a wine bottle inspired an Argentinian car mechanic to invent a device to ease difficult childbirths.

Finding analogies is not always easy, particularly for computers, which do not understand things on a deep semantic level like humans do.

Researchers have tried handcrafting data structures, but this approach is time consuming and expensive—not scalable for databases that can include 9 million US patents or 70 million scientific research papers. Others have tried inferring this structure from large amounts of text, but this approach identifies primarily surface similarities, not the deep understanding that is useful for problem-solving.

To pursue a new approach, Kittur, who has spent years studying crowdsourcing as a means of finding analogies, joined forces with Shahaf, who has specialized in computational analogies.

Can Siri learn to ‘grasp’ our metaphors?

Along with Shahaf’s doctoral student Tom Hope and postdoctoral researcher Joel Chan, they devised a scheme in which crowd workers hired through Amazon Mechanical Turk would look for analogous products in the Quirky.com product innovation website. Based on the product descriptions, they would look for those that had similar purposes or employed similar mechanisms.

“We were able to look inside these people’s brains because we forced them to show their work,” Chan explains.

A description for a yogurt maker, for instance, might yield words such as “concentrate,” “food,” and “reduce,” associated with its purpose and words such as “liquid,” “pump,” and “heating” associated with its mechanism.

“In terms of analogies, this isn’t about yogurt, but about concentrating things,” he notes.

Based on these insights, the computer could learn to analyze additional product descriptions and identify its own analogies, many of which reflected similarities between seemingly disparate products, not simply surface similarities.

When crowd workers subsequently used the analogies to suggest new products, these “distant” analogies yielded the most innovative ideas, Hope says.

The same approach could be used to tailor computer programs to find analogies in patent applications or scientific research papers.

How artificial intelligence can teach itself slang

The National Science Foundation supported this research, as did Bosch, Google, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Web 2020 initiative.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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Catalyst clears 99 percent of BPA from water

Scientists have developed a method for removing more than 99 percent of bisphenol A (also known as BPA) from water quickly and cheaply.

BPA, a ubiquitous and dangerous chemical used in the manufacturing of many plastics, is found in water sources around the world.

…BPA can be found in products from DVDs and eyeglass lenses to cash register receipts—and people and wildlife are regularly exposed.

In a new paper, which appears in Green Chemistry, chemist Terrence J. Collins and his research team also compiled evidence of BPA’s presence in a multitude of products and water sources, as well as the chemical’s toxicity.

The research team builds a strong case for the need to effectively remediate BPA-contaminated water, especially industrial waste streams and landfill runoff, and they offer a simple solution.

BPA is a chemical used primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Its use is widespread—BPA can be found in products from DVDs and eyeglass lenses to cash register receipts—and people and wildlife are regularly exposed.

BPA is dangerous because it mimics estrogen, a naturally occurring hormone, and can affect the body’s endocrine system. Studies in fish, mammals, and human cells have shown that BPA adversely affects brain and nervous system development, growth, and metabolism, and the reproductive system.

Concerns over BPA’s health effects prompted manufacturers to start making BPA-free products like baby bottles and water bottles starting in 2010. Many BPA replacements also have similar toxicity to BPA itself.

“BPA replacements have often not been adequately tested despite the fact that testing is easy to do,” says Collins, a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. Collins says environmental health scientists and green chemists developed a methodology called the Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption (TiPED) for identifying endocrine disruptors to the highest levels of contemporary science, which was published in Green Chemistry in 2013.

With more than 15 billion pounds of BPA being produced annually, BPA contamination and cleanup present a significant challenge.

“There is no escape from BPA—for any living creature,” Collins says. “The massive global use of BPA burdens an already overstrained water treatment infrastructure and most BPA water releases simply never reach a water treatment facility. Our approach has high potential to be a much better remediation strategy for BPA-contaminated waste streams.”

BPA-contaminated water such as industrial waste or landfill runoff may or may not be treated before being released into the environment or to wastewater treatment plants.

Collins’ team offers a simple, effective, and cheap cleanup solution. Their system involves a group of catalysts called TAML activators, small molecules that mimic oxidizing enzymes. When combined with hydrogen peroxide, TAML activators very effectively break down harmful chemicals in water.

In the paper, the researchers demonstrate the efficacy and safety of TAML activators in breaking down BPA. Adding TAMLs and hydrogen peroxide to water heavily contaminated with BPA resulted in a 99 percent reduction of BPA within 30 minutes at near neutral pH, which is the pH norm for wastewater treatment.

BPA may nudge breast cancer cells to grow

TAML treatment at this pH caused BPA to assemble into larger units called oligomers, which clump together and precipitate out of the water. According to Collins, the oligomers could be filtered and disposed of in a BPA water treatment facility.

Most importantly, extensive studies by Collins and his collaborators found the oligomers are themselves not harmful. The nature of the bonds that stick the BPA molecules together doesn’t allow the oligomers to revert to BPA.

To ensure the safety of the decontaminated water, including the oligomers, the researchers tested it with TiPED assays. They found the TAML-treated BPA water did not show estrogen activity or cause abnormalities in yeast and developing zebrafish embryos.

The researchers also tested the efficacy of TAML treatment on BPA-laden water at a pH of 11. At this higher pH, there was a greater than 99.9 percent reduction in BPA within 15 minutes. In contrast with pH 8.5 treatment, the BPA molecules were destroyed, and no oligomers were detected.

“Because TAML/hydrogen peroxide treatment eliminates BPA from water so easily at concentrations that are similar to a variety of waste streams including paper plant processing solutions and landfill leachate, assuming the lab studies transfer to the real world, we can now offer a new and simple procedure for reducing BPA exposures worldwide,” Collins says.

Additional authors of the study are from Carnegie Mellon; Oregon State University; and the University of Auckland.

Dogs have 3X more BPA after eating canned food

Carnegie Mellon, the University of Auckland, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Carnegie Mellon’s Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research, the Heinz Endowments, and the National Science Foundation supported the research and the researchers.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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Telescoping design would make awesome robots

Researchers have created a way to design telescoping structures that can twist and bend, which could allow the creation of robots that collapse themselves to make transport easier or stretch out to reach over large obstacles.

The researchers devised algorithms that can take a suggested shape that includes curves or twists and design a telescoping structure to match. They also created a design tool that enables even a novice to create complex, collapsible assemblies, outlined in a new paper on the research.

The design possibilities range from something as practical as a rapidly deployable shelter to fanciful creations, such as a telescoping lizard with legs, head, and tail that readily retract.

telescoping lizard bot design
The researchers explored a number of designs in simulation, including shapes mimicking lizards and other animals. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

“Telescoping mechanisms are very useful for designing deployable structures,” says Keenan Crane, assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. “They can collapse down into really small volumes and, when you need them, are easily expanded.”

The researchers explored a number of designs in simulation, including shapes mimicking lizards and other animals.

But most telescoping devices are similar to a pirate’s telescope—a set of straight, nested cylinders. In this study, Crane, along with Stelian Coros, assistant professor of robotics, and Christopher Yu, a doctoral student in computer science, set out to find out what kinds of telescoping shapes are possible and to develop computational methods for designing and fabricating those shapes.

The researchers explored a number of designs in simulation, including shapes mimicking lizards and other animals.

They found that spherical, ring-shaped, and helical telescopes are possible. Once a designer selects the desired curve for a structure, their algorithms can devise a telescoping structure that can extend or contract without bumping into itself and that includes no wasted space between the nested pieces. They also devised connectors that would combine several such telescopes into a larger assembly.

collapsing lizard bot
(Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

The researchers devised algorithms that can take a target shape that includes curves or twists and design a telescoping structure to match. They also created a design tool that enables even a novice to create complex, collapsible assemblies

Though the nested sections can have a variety of cross-sections, they focused on those with circular cross sections, just like the pirate’s spyglass. Once extended, they noted, the circular cross sections make it possible for each of the curved segments to rotate, adding 3D twists to what otherwise would be 2D shapes.

Another was a robotic arm and claw that could emerge from a compact cylinder and reach up and over obstacles.

The simulations also enabled the researchers to analyze how the telescoping devices might move if they were actuated.

Watch new rescue robot grow and twist like a vine

“We found that characters with telescoping parts are capable of surprisingly organic movements,” Coros says.

The National Science Foundation supported this research. The researchers will present their findings at the SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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Body feedback could make assisted walking easier

Researchers are using feedback from the human body to develop designs for exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs.

The work, called human-in-the-loop optimization, lessens the amount of energy needed for walking with exoskeleton assistance or prosthetic limbs.

“…the biggest challenge has remained the human element…”

“Existing exoskeleton devices, despite their potential, have not improved walking performance as much as we think they should,” says Steven Collins, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We’ve seen improvements related to computing, hardware, and sensors, but the biggest challenge has remained the human element—we just haven’t been able to guess how they will respond to new devices,” he says.

The algorithm that enables this optimization represents a step forward in the field of biomechatronics. The software algorithm is combined with versatile emulator hardware that automatically identifies optimal assistance strategies for individuals.

How stretching skin makes prosthetic hand more useful

During experiments, each user received a unique pattern of assistance from an exoskeleton worn on one ankle. The algorithm tested responses to 32 patterns over the course of an hour, making adjustments based on measurements of the user’s energy use with each pattern.

The optimized assistance pattern produced larger benefits than any exoskeleton to date, including devices acting at all joints on both legs.

“When we walk, we naturally optimize coordination patterns for energy efficiency,” Collins says. “Human-in-the-loop optimization acts in a similar way to optimize the assistance provided by wearable devices.

“We are really excited about this approach because we think it will dramatically improve energy economy, speed, and balance for millions of people, especially those with disabilities,” Collins adds.

‘Smart’ liner detects how leg prosthetics fit

A paper describing the research appears in the journal Science.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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Algorithms decode complex thoughts from brain scans

Scientists can now use brain activation patterns to identify complex thoughts like “The witness shouted during the trial.”

The research uses machine-learning algorithms and brain-imaging technology to “mind read.”

The findings indicate that the mind’s building blocks for constructing complex thoughts are formed by the brain’s various sub-systems and are not word-based. Published in Human Brain Mapping, the study offers new evidence that the neural dimensions of concept representation are universal across people and languages.

“One of the big advances of the human brain was the ability to combine individual concepts into complex thoughts, to think not just of ‘bananas,’ but ‘I like to eat bananas in evening with my friends,’” says Marcel Just, professor of psychology in Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“We have finally developed a way to see thoughts of that complexity in the fMRI signal. The discovery of this correspondence between thoughts and brain activation patterns tells us what the thoughts are built of.”

Previous work by Just and his team showed that thoughts of familiar objects, like bananas or hammers, evoke activation patterns that involve the neural systems that we use to deal with those objects. For example, how you interact with a banana involves how you hold it, how you bite it, and what it looks like.

The new study demonstrates that the brain’s coding of 240 complex events, sentences like the shouting during the trial scenario uses an alphabet of 42 meaning components, or neurally plausible semantic features, consisting of features, like person, setting, size, social interaction, and physical action. Each type of information is processed in a different brain system—which is how the brain also processes the information for objects. By measuring the activation in each brain system, the program can tell what types of thoughts are being contemplated.

For seven adult participants, the researchers used a computational model to assess how the brain activation patterns for 239 sentences corresponded to the neurally plausible semantic features that characterized each sentence. Then the program was able to decode the features of the 240th left-out sentence. They went through leaving out each of the 240 sentences in turn, in what is called cross-validation.

Brain ‘reads’ sentence the same way in 2 languages

The model was able to predict the features of the left-out sentence, with 87 percent accuracy, despite never being exposed to its activation before. It was also able to work in the other direction, to predict the activation pattern of a previously unseen sentence, knowing only its semantic features.

“Our method overcomes the unfortunate property of fMRI to smear together the signals emanating from brain events that occur close together in time, like the reading of two successive words in a sentence,” Just says. “This advance makes it possible for the first time to decode thoughts containing several concepts. That’s what most human thoughts are composed of.”

He adds, “A next step might be to decode the general type of topic a person is thinking about, such as geology or skateboarding. We are on the way to making a map of all the types of knowledge in the brain.”

Funding for the work came from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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‘Silent treatment’ divorce can get kids sick decades later

Adults whose parents separated during their childhood have an increased risk for poorer health, but experts haven’t understood why.

The findings of a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that adults whose parents separated and didn’t speak to each other during their childhoods were three times as likely to develop a cold when intentionally exposed to a common cold virus than adults whose parents had remained together or separated but continued to communicate.

“…family stress during childhood may influence a child’s susceptibility to disease 20-40 years later.”

“Early life stressful experiences do something to our physiology and inflammatory processes that increase risk for poorer health and chronic illness,” says Michael Murphy, a psychology postdoctoral research associate in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

“This work is a step forward in our understanding of how family stress during childhood may influence a child’s susceptibility to disease 20-40 years later.”

For the study, researchers quarantined 201 healthy adults experimentally exposed them to a virus that causes a common cold, and monitored them for five days for the development of a respiratory illness.

Adults whose parents lived apart and never spoke during their childhood were more than three times as likely to develop a cold compared to those from intact families. The increased risk was due, in part, to heightened inflammation in response to a viral infection.

There was no increased risk for people whose parents were separated when they were children but communicated with each other.

“Our results target the immune system as an important carrier of the long-term negative impact of early family conflict,” says Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology. “They also suggest that all divorces are not equal, with continued communication between parents buffering deleterious effects of separation on the health trajectories of the children.”

The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institutes of Health, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health funded the research.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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This tool lets you make your own robot ‘puppy’

Scientists have created a new interactive design tool that makes it possible for novices and experts to create custom robots with 3D-printed parts and consumer-level actuators.

Using a familiar drag-and-drop interface, individuals can choose from a library of components and place them into the design. The tool suggests components that are compatible with each other, offers potential placements of actuators, and can automatically generate structural components to connect those actuators.

Once the design is complete, the tool provides a physical simulation environment to test the robot before fabricating it, enabling users to iteratively adjust the design to achieve a desired look or motion.

sample robot designs from CMU's software tool
A new interactive design tool developed by the Robotics Institute enables novices and experts to build customized legged or wheeled robots using 3D-printed components and off-the-shelf actuators. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

“The process of creating new robotic systems today is notoriously challenging, time-consuming and resource-intensive,” says Stelian Coros, assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. “In the not-so-distant future, however, robots will be part of the fabric of daily life and more people—not just roboticists—will want to customize robots. This type of interactive design tool would make this possible for just about anybody.”

Coros’ team designed a number of robots with the tool and verified its feasibility by fabricating two—a wheeled robot with a manipulator arm that can hold a pen for drawing, and a four-legged “puppy” robot that can walk forward or sideways.

Do we love robots more if assembly is required?

“The system makes it easy to experiment with different body proportions and motor configurations, and see how these decisions affect the robot’s ability to do certain tasks,” says Ruta Desai, a doctoral student in robotics who helped developed the tool with Coros.

“For instance, we discovered in simulation that some of our preliminary designs for the puppy enabled it to only walk forward, not sideways. We corrected that for the final design. The motions of the robot we actually built matched the desired motion we demonstrated in simulation very well,” she adds.

The research team developed models of how actuators, off-the-shelf brackets, and 3D-printable structural components can be combined to form complex robotic systems. The iterative design process enables users to experiment by changing the number and location of actuators and to adjust the physical dimensions of the robot.

The tool includes an auto-completion feature that allows it to automatically generate assemblies of components by searching through possible arrangements.

Can robots convince girls they’re good at STEM?

“Our work aims to make robotics more accessible to casual users,” Coros says. “This is important because people who play an active role in creating robotic devices for their own use are more likely to have positive feelings and higher quality interactions with them. This could accelerate the adoption of robots in everyday life.”

Desai will present a report on the design tool at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2017) in Singapore. The National Science Foundation supported this research.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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Synthetic-Sensor-burner_400

Plug in this gadget to make any room ‘smart’

Researchers have developed a single device that, when plugged in to a power socket, can make any room a “smart” part of the Internet of Things.

The plug-in sensor package they’ve developed monitors multiple phenomena in a room, including things such as sounds, vibration, light, heat, electromagnetic noise, and temperature.

With help from machine learning techniques, this suite of sensors can determine whether a faucet’s left or right spigot is running, if the microwave door is open, or how many paper towels have been dispensed.

One device, nine sensors

“The idea is you can plug this in and immediately turn a room into a smart environment,” says Gierad Laput, a doctoral student in Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII).

“You don’t have to go out and buy expensive smart appliances, which probably can’t talk to each other anyway, or attach sensors to everything you want to monitor, which can be both hard to maintain and ugly. You just plug it in to an outlet.”

It’s an approach that Laput and his coinvestigators in the HCII’s Future Interfaces Group call “Synthetic Sensors,” because the raw feeds from the unit’s nine sensors can be combined and interpreted in ways that can sense dozens of phenomena of interest. They presented their findings on Wednesday, May 10 at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Denver.

Laput and his colleagues built their platforms with sensors used in other commonly available smart home devices—with the exception of a camera, which raises privacy concerns.

Cheap tags add paper to the Internet of Things

Machine learning algorithms can combine these raw feeds into powerful synthetic sensors that can identify a wide range of events and objects. For instance, they can distinguish between a blender, coffee grinder, and mixer based on sounds and vibrations. Even soft, more subtle sounds, such as writing or erasing on a whiteboard, can be detected.

Beyond recording whether a device is in use or not, synthetic sensors can track the state of a device: whether a microwave door is open or closed, if cooking is interrupted, and whether the microwave has completed its cooking cycle.

“It can not only tell you if a towel dispenser is working, but it can also keep track of how many towels have been dispensed and even order a replacement roll when necessary,” Laput says. A faucet left running when a room is unoccupied for a long time might prompt a warning message to the user’s smartphone.

man tests synthetic sensor by turning on burner
The plug-in sensor package monitors multiple phenomena in a room and uses machine learning techniques to immediately turn a room into a smart environment. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

More than the microwave

Even more advanced sensing can infer human activity, such as when someone is sleeping, showering, watching streaming video, or has left home for work. Most of this processing occurs on the sensor platform itself, so detailed and sensitive data need not be transmitted or recorded, he adds.

The sensor platform can be manually trained to recognize various phenomena, such as the cycling of water heaters or heating and air conditioning units.

Tiny WiFi radio could get us closer to Internet of Things

It also would be possible to pretrain the sensors to detect many popular devices and brands of home or office products, allowing the sensor platform to begin functioning as soon as it is plugged in, Laput says.

Plugging the units into a regular electric socket eliminates the need for batteries or special wiring. As a practical matter, each room likely will need its own sensor platform, though it would be possible to have each sensor platform communicate with other nearby sensors to create a home-wide sensing environment with just a few sensors, not hundreds.

Google, through the GIoTTo Expedition Project, supported this research, as did the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. For more information about Synthetic Sensors, visit the project website.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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To avoid conflicts of interest, pay doctors a salary

A new study outlines the problems associated with the fee-for-service arrangements under which most doctors currently operate. These compensation schemes, argue researchers, often create incentives for physicians to order more, and different, services than are best for patients.

“Fee-for-service payments have adverse consequences that dwarf those of the payments from pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers that have received the lion’s share of attention in the conflict of interest literature,” says George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Paying doctors to do more leads to over-provision of tests and procedures, which cause harms that go beyond the monetary and time costs of getting them. Many if not most tests and procedures cause pain and discomfort, especially when they go wrong.”

One commonly proposed solution to the problem involves requiring physicians to disclose their financial interest for a given procedure. However, disclosure of conflicts has been found to have limited, or even negative, effects on patients.

In a Viewpoint article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers argue that the simplest and most effective way to deal with conflicts caused by fee-for-service arrangements is to pay physicians on a straight salary basis.

Several health systems, such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and the Kaiser group in California pay physicians salaries without incentives for volume of services performed.

Restricting drug reps may shift doctors to generics

Moving more physicians to straight salary-based compensation might have benefits not only for patients, but also for physicians themselves.

“The high levels of job dissatisfaction reported by many physicians may result, in part, from the need to navigate the complexities of the fee-for-service arrangements,” says coauthor Ian Larkin, assistant professor of strategy at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management.

“Instead of focusing on providing patients with the best possible medical care, physicians are forced to consider the ramifications of their decisions for their own paychecks.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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How spray paint can turn guitar into touchpad

Walls, furniture, steering wheels, toys, and even Jell-O can become touch sensors with a new technology called Electrick.

Touch sensing is most common on small, flat surfaces such as smartphone or tablet screens. Researchers have found a way, however, to turn surfaces of a wide variety of shapes and sizes into touchpads using tools as simple as a can of spray paint.

The “trick” is to apply electrically conductive coatings or materials to objects or surfaces or to craft objects using conductive materials. By attaching a series of electrodes to the conductive materials, researchers showed they could use a well-known technique called electric field tomography to sense the position of a finger touch.

“For the first time, we’ve been able to take a can of spray paint and put a touch screen on almost anything,” says Chris Harrison, assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) at Carnegie Mellon University and head of the Future Interfaces Group.

Until now, large touch surfaces have been expensive and irregularly shaped or flexible touch surfaces have been largely available only in research labs. Some methods have relied on computer vision, which can be disrupted if a camera’s view of a surface is blocked. The presence of cameras also raises privacy concerns.

With Electrick, conductive touch surfaces can be created by applying conductive paints, bulk plastics, or carbon-loaded films, such as Desco’s Velostat, among other materials.

Yang Zhang, a PhD student in HCII, says Electrick is both accessible to hobbyists and compatible with common manufacturing methods, such as spray coating, vacuum forming, and casting/molding, as well as 3D printing.

These 3D-printed electrodes for screens are transparent

Like many touchscreens, Electrick relies on the shunting effect—when a finger touches the touchpad, it shunts a bit of electric current to ground. By attaching multiple electrodes to the periphery of an object or conductive coating, Zhang and his colleagues showed they could localize where and when such shunting occurs.

They did this by using electric field tomography—sequentially running small amounts of current through the electrodes in pairs and noting any voltage differences.

The tradeoff, in comparison to other touch input devices, is accuracy. Even so, Electrick can detect the location of a finger touch to an accuracy of one centimeter, which is sufficient for using the touch surface as a button, slider, or other control, Zhang says.

Zhang, Harrison, and fellow PhD student Gierad Laput used Electrick to add touch sensing to surfaces as large as a 4-by-8-foot sheet of drywall, as well as objects as varied as a steering wheel, the surface of a guitar, and a Jell-O mold of a brain. Even Play-Doh can be made interactive with Electrick.

They used the technology to make an interactive smartphone case—opening applications such as a camera based on how the user holds the phone—and a game controller that can change the position and combinations of buttons and sliders based on the game being played or the player’s preferences.

Zhang says the Electrick surfaces proved durable. Adding a protective coating atop the conductive paints and sheeting also is possible.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation supported this research. The group will present a paper on Electrick at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, this week in Denver, Colorado.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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