Sprayable sensors make any surface interactive

Imagine touching the armrest of your sofa to change the channel on your television, or pressing against a lightbulb stencil on the wall to turn on your smart light – these functions and many more like them are now possible thanks to research from a team from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, and the University of Bristol and the University of Bath in the UK.

Called Sprayable User Interfaces, the technology combines a top design layer and an underlying conductive copper ink layer that’s able to recognize touch, along with a microcontroller that connects to the ink and responds to it. The interfaces work on rough surfaces and curved surfaces, and even in wet outdoor settings.

Through the use of the special ink, you’re essentially able to connect any kind of stencil design with other gadgets. Want to press your office wall to hear some music? You got it.

Sprayable User Interfaces

“Unlike many existing techniques, such as 3D printing, screen printing or inkjet printing, spraying is not bound to a specific volume and, as often demonstrated by graffiti artwork, can create output that covers entire walls and even building facades,” write the researchers in their paper. “Our work contributes to the vision of blending digital user interfaces with the physical environment and extends it to large-scale interactive surfaces.”

While it’s going to take some time for the technology to be scaled up and commercialized, it could one day be used as part of smart buildings or smart architecture – stencilled, airbrushed designs that are able to respond to your touch.

Conductive copper ink forms the basis of any design
Conductive copper ink forms the basis of any design


It doesn’t just have to be touch, though – the ink systems can also respond to a sliding finger or hand (to adjust the brightness of a light for example) or even to proximity – so you could wave your hand in front of a door to open it. An output in the form of an electroluminescent display can be added too.

While these systems do require some advanced planning and design in order to produce the original stencils, and to make sure the conductive ink is correctly arranged on a surface, the technique is relatively easy to apply once you’ve got an airbrush in your hand. The user interface elements on top can really be any design you like.

The Sprayable User Interfaces technology was due to be presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this year, but the event has been called off in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.


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