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And Now for Something Completely Different: Your Skin is a Touchpad

Carnegie Mellon University students develops technology to use human body as a touchpadWhen it comes to the future of computing, why not skip the middleman?  That’s the basic idea behind Skinput, a technology that skips the whole notion of using manufactured touchpads or keyboards to interface with electronic devices.  What could be more simple, elegant and sustainable than using your own skin, which you already have, which lasts a lifetime, and which you will never leave behind in a taxi?  Skinput was developed by a team headed by Carnegie Mellon University student Chris Harrison, as a way to enable people to manipulate ever-smaller electronic devices.


Though new technologies are bringing us closer to molecular-sized computers, the size of touchpads and keyboards is still somewhat limited by the size of the average human finger.  Freed from that equation, electronic devices like phones and MP3 players could shrink down to truly microscopic sizes – and that could have some important implications for e-waste, energy efficiency and the sustainable future of electronics.

Inputting with Skinput

If you’ve ever been “sounded” by a doctor thumping on your back or stomach, that’s the basic mechanics of a skin-based touchpad.  Using acoustic sensors attached to the upper arm, the research team found that the tap of each fingertip on certain locations of the arm generates a unique sound that can be taught to machine learning programs.  A test-run of the system on 20 subjects produced a decent rate of accuracy at an average of 88%, with finger flicks taking top marks at 97%.

Skinput, Energy Efficiency, and E-Waste

It’s no secret that the world is facing a surge in energy gobbling electronic devices and a consequent flood of e-waste, which is bound to climb higher along with the global population and the development of undeveloped regions.  Harrison’s Skinput provides at least a partial solution by opening the door for much smaller and lighter equipment that generates less e-waste.  It dovetails perfectly with new advances in molecular-level computing, especially for nanomaterials like graphene.  It also meshes with other e-waste solutions such as reducing toxic metals in electronics, and it complements new advances in energy efficient computer chips.

Image: Human hand by Claus Rebler on

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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