Turn Any Surface Into a Touchpad With a Coat of Paint

If you can paint it, you can turn it into a touchpad. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon have developed a system, dubbed Electrick, that can make just about any surface touch-sensitive. As TechCrunch reports, Electrick uses conductive paint and electrodes sensitive enough to detect the slight changes in electrical flow caused by a person’s finger.

To make the technology work, the researchers employed a technique called “electric field tomography.” When your finger presses against a touch-sensitive surface, like the screen of a smartphone, it absorbs a small amount of charge from that device. Your phone uses electrodes to sense disturbances in its electric field, and Electrick does something similar. Electrodes set up around a surface coated with conductive paint are able to measure the voltage differences caused when someone’s finger comes in contact with it.

Electrick works on most surfaces: Plastic, wood, drywall, Play-Doh, and Jell-O are all compatible with it. The system can be used to replace volume controls on steering wheels, pedals on guitars, and light switches on walls.

One area where the technology falls behind is accuracy. Electrick isn’t as well-suited for writing or sketching as other touchpads, but with a margin of error of one centimeter it’s a fine alternative for simple buttons and sliders. The researchers hope the system’s relatively low cost will make it available to a wide audience. “Our technique is readily accessible to hobbyists, requiring no special chemicals, equipment or facilities,” the authors write in their report [PDF]. “Everything required can be readily purchased online."

[h/t TechCrunch]

This Amateur Rocketeer Builds Functioning, Miniature Replicas of SpaceX Rockets

Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

Amateur rocketry is a hobby that predates NASA. Hobbyists have successfully made it to space using rockets built without the massive budgets and resources available to larger organizations. And some of these rockets do more than reach incredible heights: As Motherboard reports, Joe Barnard, a 25-year-old rocketeer from Nashville, Tennessee, is working on making model rockets capable of propulsive landings, the same trick that makes some SpaceX rockets reusable.

Most rocket boosters that propel loads past the Earth's atmosphere are designed to go only one way. In 2015, Elon Musk's space exploration company SpaceX made history when it successfully maneuvered the boosters used to launch its Falcon 9 rocket back onto the landing pad. SpaceX says its latest version of the rocket can be re-flown up to 100 times, saving the company millions of dollars per launch.

Joe Barnard is bringing this same level of innovation to the amateur rocketry world. He first became interested in aerospace engineering after watching early SpaceX videos, and instead of earning a degree in the field, he taught himself the basics. He's since made rocketry into a career, founding Barnard Propulsion Systems (BPS), a small business that sells supplies to other hobbyists, and working on rockets of his own.

Like the rockets at SpaceX, Barnard's creations use thrust vectoring—the technology that makes it possible to navigate and stabilize a rocket after launch—only on a much smaller scale. He's built miniature models of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, and as is the case at SpaceX, his launches don't always run smoothly.

Barnard is still perfecting propulsive landings in amateur rockets, but for now he says each failure is a learning experience. You can watch the progress of his experiments on his YouTube channel.

[h/t Motherboard]

This High-Tech Skin Turns Almost Any Object Into a Robot


Instead of trading in their low-tech toys for fancy new gadgets, kids of the future may have the option to turn Teddy into a cyborg. As Gizmodo reports, researchers at Yale University have invented a robot "skin" that can give mobility to just about any inanimate object that can bend.

The researchers describe how this technology, called OmniSkins, works in a paper published in Science Robotics. The material, made from elastic sheets that contain sensors and actuators, can be wrapped around any malleable surface and controlled remotely or with on-board light sensors, essentially turning the item into a makeshift robot. The actuators in OmniSkins manipulate the object, while sensors can gauge exactly how much pressure needs to be applied to perform an action.

The project was largely funded by NASA, and it's easy to see how the tech might be used on one of the agency's missions in the future. On board a spacecraft, every cubic inch of space is precious, and the ability to repurpose something into a robotic arm or rover in a pinch would be invaluable to astronauts.

But the technology has potential applications on Earth as well, and not just to allow stuffed animals to walk on their own. Add a few of the skins to a shirt and it could automatically adjust your posture throughout the day, or you could use them to create a gripper to handle hard-to-reach objects.

You can see OmniSkins in action in the video below.

[h/t Gizmodo]