Microsoft ThinSight

A computer screen that also acts as a two-handed touch interface and a crude infrared camera has been developed by researchers at Microsoft's labs in the UK. Users can operate the display with both hands, in a similar manner to the display in the film Minority Report. But this screen can also recognise particular hand […]

A computer screen that also acts as a two-handed touch interface and a crude infrared camera has been developed by researchers at Microsoft's labs in the UK.

Users can operate the display with both hands, in a similar manner to the display in the film Minority Report. But this screen can also recognise particular hand gestures as well as objects placed within a centimetre of its surface.

"It can sense much more than fingers, and is essentially a low resolution scanner and camera," says lead researcher Shahram Izadi. The screen can even communicate wirelessly with other devices nearby using the same infrared technology it uses to see.

The technology – dubbed ThinSight – was developed by adding an extra layer of electronics behind a normal laptop screen. This adds a couple of centimetres to the overall thickness, but completely transforms its abilities (see a video, top right).

The screen "sees" by using a grid of paired infrared sensors and transmitters that sit just behind the backlight of the laptop's LCD panel. The sensors can form crude images when infrared light bounces off an object (see images, right). This could allow the screen to identify hand gestures or to see objects, and let them interact with onscreen images.

Apple has already filed a patent on a display that works as a webcam, using cameras in between its pixels. And Sharp has unveiled a small LCD display that can scan business cards, or detect the touch of a single finger.

Detect and display

"This is early days for this approach – most prototypes are still small and slow," says team member Steve Hodges. "In a decade there will be a lot more screens in every environment," he adds. "Why not let them detect, as well as display, information?"

Other multi-touch and imaging interfaces have been developed previously, but these often use cameras placed behind the display screen or behind the user, which is cumbersome. Apple's iPhone, can detect multiple touches through changes in electric fields, but cannot take images of an object.

ThinSight can also work as a wireless infrared transmitter and receiver, responding to an ordinary TV remote or other infrared-enabled gadgets. Data could be sent to and from the screen using a PDA or cellphone too, Izadi says. This could let a user operate the screen remotely or send images for it to display.

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ThinSight, Microsoft, Microsoft Research, R&D