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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

35 Innovators Under 35

Chris Harrison, 28

Liberating us from the touch screen by turning skin and objects into input devices

Carnegie Mellon University

Chris Harrison recently helped develop an invention, called Touché, that can turn practically anything into a computer input device—a table, a doorknob, a pool of water, your hand. To do this, he relies on the natural conductivity of some things, or he adds electrodes to objects that aren’t conductive. Then he wires up a controller that registers the range of electronic signals the objects generate when they are changed by, say, a particular hand gesture or body posture. A sensor attached to a sofa, for instance, can continuously monitor voltage changes to detect the signatures of particular motions and events and link them to actions. A dog leaping on the couch might trigger a harsh noise to scare it off; a person sitting down might cause the TV to switch on. (Yes, even a couch potato’s life can be made easier.)

Harrison, a PhD student in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, says his mission is to liberate our fingers from having to command our phones and other devices by poking at squished keyboards and teensy screens. “If you think about all the ways we use our hands, being limited to only poking would make the world really hard to use,” he says.

He is enlisting technologies ranging from cameras to stethoscopes to miniature projectors. Before Touché, which he developed while at Disney Research, he invented a device called Skinput that turns skin into the equivalent of an interactive touch screen: a tiny body-mounted optical system projects “buttons” onto the wearer’s hand and arm and detects any tapping of the buttons so that a device can be controlled. As an intern at Microsoft, he helped create OmniTouch, a roughly similar system that makes it possible to turn any object in the environment into a multitouch screen. And he’s made a device called Scratch Input that uses a modified stethoscope and generic microphone to convert the sound of a fingernail dragging over just about any surface into an electrical control signal.

Harrison notes that as computers become better integrated into almost everything we do, we will find it increasingly convenient to be able to interact with them in a variety of ways, without always having to resort to a screen or keyboard. “Eventually we’ll develop input technologies so good that we don’t need a touch screen,” he says. Our tired fingers salute that quest.

Nicole Dyer

2012 TR35 Winners

Rana el Kaliouby

Teaching devices to tell a frown from a smile

Saikat Guha (video)

Letting advertisers send targeted pitches to your mobile phone without ever seeing your personal information

Chris Harrison (video)

Liberating us from the touch screen by turning skin and objects into input devices

John Hering

Securing our smartphones from spyware and rogue apps, with a little help from the crowds

Drew Houston

Hiding all the complexities of remote file storage behind a small blue box

Ren Ng (video)

By tracking the direction of light, a camera takes pictures that can be refocused on different objects in a scene

Hossein Rahnama (video)

Mobile apps that tell you what you need to know before you have to ask

Leila Takayama (video)

Applying the tools of social science to make robots easier to live and work with

Eben Upton

His ultracheap computer is perfect for tinkering

Andreas Velten (video)

Spotting tiny problems with help from an ultrafast camera

See This Years' Winners

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