This Conductive Paint Turns Walls Into Giant Touchscreens

The interactive surfaces could make “smart” home features much more subtle and affordable

smithsonian.com

Tech companies and journalists have been throwing around the term “smart home” for a while now, but it seems like the idea is finally become an actual reality. You can play music, order pizza, turn on the lights, even start the vacuum cleaner by voice command with Alexa. Your thermostat can learn your schedule and temperature preferences to create the perfect ambiance. You can unlock your door and monitor your house from afar with a smart lock.

Soon, you may even be able to use your very walls to, say, turn on the stove or dim the lights. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Disney Research have collaborated to design a conductive paint that, when applied to any wall, makes the surface interactive.

“We wanted to make walls smart, since walls are already there,” says Yang Zhang, a PhD student who led the research.

The smart walls function like giant touchscreens and have the potential to respond to gesture commands. They can track users’ positions in the room and know which electrical appliances are close by and whether they’re being used.

The researchers used special conductive paint containing nickel, applied in grid, to create electrodes on the wall. This paint turns the wall into a touchscreen and an electromagnetic sensor. They then painted over the electrodes with regular paint.

The walls look and feel totally ordinary. That’s one of the major benefits, Zhang says. He imagines a future where every home comes equipped with similar smart walls, which residents can feel free to use or simply ignore. Another benefit of using paint to create the smart surface is cost. The team currently estimates the application costs at about $20 per square meter, but hope to bring the price down with further fine tuning.

Zhang says the walls could potentially serve as an interface for controlling home appliances that would be cheaper, more efficient and less obtrusive than current smart home setups.

“People purchase smart appliances that can easily cost thousands of dollars, or you can buy after market sensors that people can tag to everyday objects,” says Zhang. “But you don’t want your beautiful kitchen to be tagged with all these sensors. And batteries have to be recharged.”

Zhang also imagines the walls targeting the needs and preferences of different residents, identified perhaps by their smart watches. It could turn on the lights just the way you like, play your roommate’s favorite tunes when she walks into the room, notify family members if grandma appears to have fallen.

Besides reducing the cost of the paint, Zhang and his team aim to make the walls capable of detecting appliances at further distances. Right now the walls have a range of 3 meters, which is fine for wall-mounted TVs or a lamp that sits by the couch. But they hope to expand the range to 10 or even 20 meters, making the walls capable of sensing electronics in the middle of very large rooms.

The team is currently talking with commercial partners, and hopes a product might be available soon. “I’m optimistic,” Zhang says. “But probably in the future, maybe in 2 to 3 years, it might become commercially available such that every home owner can buy it at Home Depot.”

David Rose, author of Enchanted Objects, a book about the Internet of Things, and a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, says the smart walls speak to the way smart home technology is evolving.

“I really like where it’s going in terms of subtlety,” he says. “It is what we want in our future technology, in terms of being really invisible and embedded and camouflaged and subtle.”

Rose thinks future smart home technology will blend seamlessly into our homes. We might, for example, have systems that subtly nudge us towards sleep by dimming the lights or spraying calming whiffs of lavender. Smart mattresses could monitor our sleep phases and adjust the environment to keep us comfortable.

What people don’t want, Rose says, are tons of dials and knobs and complicated commands to learn. The challenge for the smart walls, he says, will likely be in creating simple control gestures, so users don’t spend weeks trying to figure out how to interact with the technology.

“People talk about ‘how can we make things smart,’” he says. “But I really feel like ‘how can we make people feel like they have superpowers.’”

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