Microsoft has released details of a technology it believes could spell the end of the traditional smartphone: OmniTouch, a wearable computing system that uses any available surface as an interactive display.
The work of Hrvoje Benko and Scott Saponas from Microsoft Research Redmond and PhD student Chris Harrison, OmniTouch takes the technology first developed for Microsoft's Surface touch-sensitive computer and allows it to be used on the move.
"We wanted to capitalise on the tremendous surface area the real world provides," claims Benko, who works in Microsoft Research Redmond's Natural Interaction Research group. "The surface area of one hand alone exceeds that of typical smart phones.
"Tables are an order of magnitude larger than a tablet computer," adds Benko. "If we could appropriate these ad hoc surfaces in an on-demand way, we could deliver all of the benefits of mobility while expanding the user’s interactive capability."
The result of such thinking is OmniTouch, a prototype wearable computer which combines a laser-based pico projector for the display with a depth-sensing camera similar to that used in Microsoft's Kinect accessory for the Xbox 360 console.
"This camera and projector combination simplified our work because the camera reports depth in world coordinates, which are used when modeling a particular graphical world; the laser-based projector delivers an image that is always in focus, so didn’t need to calibrate for focus," Benko explains.
The result: OmniTouch can project its images onto any given surface, including that of the human hand, while detecting interaction based on finger segmentation.
The result is a system which turns the human hand itself - or a table, or a notepad, or almost any other surface - into a touch-sensitive display for the wearable computer.
Sadly, the prototype is somewhat unwieldy: the OmniTouch system is housed in a very Kinect-like casing which attaches to a wearable harness designed to project over the user's shoulder. As a prototype, that's fine, but the project has a long way to go before it reaches anything like a commercial quality level.
That's something of which Microsoft is well aware, and is a large part of the reason why the company has yet to suggest a timescale for when we can replace our smartphones with an OmniTouch rig.
"We are trying to push the boundaries of this rich space of touch and gestures," claimed Benko in conclusion, "making gestural interactions available on any surface and with any device."
The OmniTouch research paper can be downloaded in PDF format here.