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Smart cities! Magical, hi-tech spray paint creates touch screens anywhere

By Adam Pockross

You’ve got a smart phone, a smart car, and a smart home — isn’t it about time you got yourself a smart couch? Or how about a smart city?! Well, thanks to some smarties from MIT, that may be possible.

Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have come up with SprayableTech, a spray paint that lets them create large-scale interactive surfaces and architecture, seamlessly integrating digital UI with the physical world. Forget the interactive shiny user interfaces we’ve all seen in countless sci-fi flicks, the future is concrete.

Using a stencil generated by a 3D editor, conductive inks with electrically functional elements, and a microcontroller, SprayableTech can be applied to rough surfaces and curved surfaces, including concrete pillars and couch arms, to create sensors and displays that actually perform real-world tasks. At this point, as wildly displayed in MIT’s video below, those tasks don’t include browsing Netflix without having to reach for the remote just yet, but they do show off some pretty impressive operations.

In one test, the team created a musical interface on a concrete pillar that lets you play tunes when you touch a spray-painted musical note. Another applied a UI to a sofa arm connected to a TV, allowing the user to swipe left through a series of pictures. They also airbrushed a spray paint can interface on a wall, which allows for light control of both brightness and color. And in the smart city space, they applied the system to a wet street post, creating a touchable display that can also provide relevant local knowledge, such as when a train’s coming, or what restaurants are close by.

Granted, that’s not exactly a smart city at this point, and we’ll still take the Minority Report's virtual UI for our user interface of the future, but right now you could theoretically 3D edit and print yourself a life-sized picture of Tom Cruise, and then apply an interface to that. And down the road, the applications are potentially boundless.

“Since SprayableTech is so flexible in its application, you can imagine using this type of system beyond walls and surfaces to power larger-scale entities like interactive smart cities and interactive architecture in public places,” says MIT postdoc Michael Wessely, lead author on the paper "Sprayable User Interfaces: Prototyping Large-Scale Interactive Surfaces With Sensors and Displays." “We view this as a tool that will allow humans to interact with and use their environment in newfound ways.”

Of course, in our coronavirus-curbing present, no one wants to touch anything. So we’ll just be patient as we await the next wave of SprayableTech applications.

(via MIT News)