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Thermal Imaging Software Makes Any Surface a Touch Screen

BARCELONA -- Who needs pricey screens when you can tap on a wall or a table? New software technology from augmented reality developer Metaio uses the heat signature from your fingerprints as inputs. At the company's Mobile World Congress booth, marketing manager Jack Dashwood demonstrated its Thermal Touch capabilities using an iPhone with a Flir One heat-sensing case attached.

As I watched, Dashwood opened his demo app and pointed the iPhone camera at a poster on the booth wall with a list of top albums from the 90s. When he pressed his finger on the box for a particular album, the phone began to play a track from that CD.

When he switched to the Flir One app's thermal view, I was able to see that his fingerprints were leaving little red heat signatures where he pressed them on the poster or on a nearby table. By reading the location and shape of these signatures and recognizing the object below them, the Metaio software knew which track to play.

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Dashwood also showed that the software is capable of distinguishing your left and right hands based on what direction they come from. Using this data, an application could decide that a touch from your left hand has a different meaning than your right, perhaps seeing one as an upvote and the other as a downvote, he said. It does not distinguish individual fingers at this time.

We've seen a number of gesture technologies, including Intel RealSense, which uses depth-sensing cameras to see your hands and tell what you've touched. However, Dashwood said that Thermal Touch provides a more precise way of telling whether you have actually touched a surface rather than just hovering over it.

He said that, in the future, you might even be able to type on an augmented reality keyboard by simply tapping on a table. That future could be a ways off, because it took a couple of seconds to recognize a single touch, and that was after a few failed attempts. Ambient heat from the other side of the wall could confuse the sensors, Dashwood explained.

The company first showed off Thermal Touch last May, but this week's demo used a newer version of the technology deployed on a phone rather than a large tablet. Future devices could have the heat sensing built-in, rather than using a peripheral like the Flir One.