In the future, everything is connected. Even our walls will be watching us binge watch TV on our couches.
Yes, the internet is already connected to doorbells, toasters, and light bulbs, changing the way we interact with them. Even our fridges are possessed by an AI that can shame us for not picking the free-range, organic eggs.
Now, researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University teamed up with researchers from Disney (yep, the Disney of World, Land, and Cinderella) to transform those lame, "dumb" walls into smart walls. They function as a gigantic trackpad, sensing a user and their movements.
In the paper presented at the 2018 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Montreal, Quebec, the researchers note their goal to give walls the ability to track a user's touch and gestures through "airborne electromagnetic noise" — more or less (mostly less) the same kind of sensing your smartphone screen does.
Their pitch had me hooked from the start: "Houses, offices, restaurants, schools, museums — walls are everywhere, yet they are inactive." Totally. All walls do is, you know, hold up structures and separate the noisy goings-on in various rooms to, like, give people privacy and stuff. We're tired of giving walls a free ride; it's time walls started holding up their own weight around here.
Rather than using a camera to locate a user and track their movement, as other systems do, this system relies on a grid of "large electrodes" covered in a layer of water-based paint that conducts electricity. Water-based paint is less smelly and looks better than other conductive paints, like nickel-based ones. And all it took to connect the electrodes was copper tape. Cha-ching, goes the checkout lane at Home Depot, for a measly 20 bucks per square meter.
The result: a wall so smart, it could play a game of vertical Twister with you, and also tell if you were cheating. It can even sense if you're holding a hair dryer really close to it through electromagnetic resonance (why you would hold a hair dryer really close to a wall is a separate question).
But the team does have some actual uses in mind for their invention: users could play videogames by using different poses to control them, change the channel on their TV with a wave of their arm, or slap the wall directly to turn off the lights, no need for light switches.
Yes, indeed, we are truly living in the future.