Microsoft's 'smart cellophane' looks surprisingly useful (at least for academics)

microsoft research flipsense image
Microsoft Research

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Most people look at the transparent plastic covering a smartphone or tablet display as just another hindrance to be pulled off and removed. But with Microsoft’s FlexSense research project, that very activity is the whole point.

FlexSense is a research project that Microsoft presented this week at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) User Interface Software and Technology Symposium. Consisting of a new thin-film surface based on printed piezoelectric sensors, the technology can detect how the plastic is being pulled back and manipulated. As you can see in the animated GIF below, it can lead to some interesting use-case scenarios.

FlexSense is just one of several projects that Microsoft is announcing at the conference. The company is also presenting a new take on Illumiroom (technology that merges images on traditional displays with complementary content projected across an entire room), as well as research that uses a tablet stylus as its own form of multi-modal input.

microsoft research flexsense Microsoft Research

How Microsoft’s FlexSense technology works in a crossword puzzle.

Why this matters: In the end, it’s very likely that this research won’t matter. After all, this is often the case with pure research—it never trickles down to products we can actually buy. That said, it’s always possible that some derivative form of this research could appear in future products, whether it’s realized by Microsoft or a spin-off company. Check out the Illumiroom link above. It does suggest an interesting new approach to gaming.

The utility of removable film

Microsoft continues to search for clever new ways that allow consumers to interact with computing devices, most famously the Xbox Kinect depth camera. Unfortunately, the Kinect camera essentially flopped, forcing Microsoft to release a version of the Xbox One console without it.

FlexSense, too, seems like technology with limited consumer appeal, but a demonstration video holds out some promise: When flipped down, for example, the film can act as an image filter, changing the appearance of the display content beneath it. When partially pulled back, the filter is removed from an exposed area. Similar demonstrations showed users “peeking” at the solution of a crossword puzzle by pulling up the plastic.

At this point, there’s little likelihood that FlexSense will ever ship with your next Surface Pro. But the technique shows promise for something. Who knows, maybe a kid’s toy.

Other papers Microsoft is showing off this week include:

  • 3D-board, a digital whiteboard capable of capturing life-sized virtual cutouts of remote users who “interact” with a whiteboard shared with another user. 

  • Room Alive, a version of IllumiRoom in which images are projected onto walls and other surfaces. Users can touch, shoot, stomp, dodge and steer projected content that seamlessly co-exists with the objects around them, using a networked series of projectors. 

  • A technique to use a stylus as another form of input: Microsoft already provides a stylus in its Surface tablet line, which users can use to enter digital ink. In this demonstration, Microsoft has put grip and motion sensors both in the stylus and the tablet itself to learn how users would interact differently.
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