Metaio unveils Thermal Touch technology for making user interfaces out of thin air

User interfaces present one of the most interesting quandaries of modern computing: we’ve moved from big monitors and keyboards to touchscreens, but now we’re heading into a world of connected everyday objects and wearable computing — how will we interact with those? Metaio, the German augmented reality outfit, has an idea.

Augmented reality (AR) involves overlaying virtual imagery and information on top of the real world — you may be familiar with the concept of viewing a magazine page through your phone’s camera and seeing a static ad come to life. Metaio has come up with a way of creating a user interface on pretty much any surface, by combining traditional camera-driven AR with thermal imaging.

Essentially, what Metaio is demonstrating with its new “Thermal Touch” interface concept is an alternative to what a touchscreen does when you touch it — there, capacitive sensors know you’ve touched a certain part because they can sense the electrical charge in your finger; here, an infrared camera senses the residual heat left by your finger. So, for example, you could use smart glass to view a virtual chess board on an empty table, then actually play chess on it:

Metaio Thermal Touch chess

“Our R&D department had a few thermal cameras that they’d just received and kind of on a whim they started playing around,” Metaio spokesman Trak Lord told me. “One researcher noticed that every time he touched something, it left a very visible heat signature imprint.”

To be clear, a normal camera can do a lot of tracking if it has sufficiently powerful brains behind it – some of the theoretical applications shown off by Metaio on Thursday may be partly achievable without yet another sensor for your tablet or smart glass or whatever. But there’s a limit to what normal cameras can do when it comes to tracking interaction with three-dimensional surfaces. As Lord put it, “the thermal camera adds another dimension of understanding. If you have a [normal] camera it’s not as precise. The thermal imaging camera can very clearly see where exactly you’re touching.”

Metaio has a bunch of fascinating use cases to hand: security keypads that only the user can see; newspaper ads with clickable links; interactive car manuals that show you what you need to know about a component when you touch it. But right now this is just R&D – nobody is putting thermal imaging cameras into their smartphones and wearables just yet, and Lord reckons it will take at least 5 years before this sort of thing comes to market, if it ever does.

For now, this is the equipment needed to realize the concept:

Metaio Thermal Touch

Still, when modern mobile devices are already packing tons of sensors, why not throw in another if it can turn anything into a user interface? Here’s Metaio’s video, showing what Thermal Touch could do: