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Turn Your Kitchen Counter Into a Touch Screen

The futurist consensus is that someday household surfaces, like kitchen counters and refrigerator doors, will function like giant iPads, with Internet-connected interactive touch displays. No, not built-in displays. Entire surfaces will be usable as interactive computers.

It sounds like far-fetched, space-age technology, and expensive, too. And the idea of replacing choice pieces of your home decor with big screens sounds horrible. But in fact, none of that is the case. That's because touch displays don't require a new counter or fridge. It's possible even today to convert any surface into an interactive touch display using projected light and camera sensors.

This has long been a central feature of Microsoft Home, which is a showcase house built to demonstrate futuristic ideas from Microsoft Research.
The Microsoft Home kitchen uses projection displays to beam information and recipes right onto the surface of the countertop. The dining room tablet has games projected onto that surface, as well as step-by-step instructions for crafts.

Even more advanced than Microsoft's prototype is its "Vision" video, which projects into the future (pun intended) how projector touch displays will work in five to 10 years. A girl builds a product on a touch tablet in this scene:
But an overhead projector extends the animation beyond the tablet and onto the table. Then she does the same thing with recipes. (Microsoft actually has a patent for this and could even ship the technology this year in the next version of its Xbox gaming system.) Her dad checks the contents of the fridge without opening the door, also with a projector touch display.

The content, and even the interface, is almost irrelevant. That merely requires programmers to write software, which they will do once this technology is more widespread. It's possible with relatively inexpensive projectors and cameras to turn any household surface into a powerful, huge interactive touch display that can be conjured up or dismissed at any time. When it's gone, no tech is visible.
Touch projection technology is already here. It's just not widely distributed yet. A restaurant in London called Inamo projects its menu from the ceiling onto the tables, as well as projects custom "tablecloths." Diners order from the touch display projected onto the tables. A menu of other options includes interactive games and a service for ordering a cab.

The technology is something of a gimmick, designed to entertain restaurant customers. But it also proves the feasibility and functionality of such display technology.
A widely available and inexpensive gadget called the Celluon Magic Cube projects a red laser keyboard onto any table or desk. When the user taps on the projected keys, the keystrokes are registered on any newish OS X, iOS, Windows, Android or Windows Phone device. It also works as an invisible "mouse."

You might consider the Magic Cube to be a rudimentary proof of concept for things to come. It projects only one color and only lines, numbers and letters. The "resolution" of the touch interaction is fairly crude. Yet it's an inexpensive product (just over $100) and uses just one camera with the projector in the same device. And it works.

Imagine what will be possible with multiple cameras, no requirement for battery operation and better software.
A company called Ubi Interactive is working on software that uses any projector plus Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360 product to turn any surface into an interactive touch screen. Kinect for Xbox 360 is a low-cost add-on for Microsoft's Xbox gaming system that is usually used for in-the-air motion-sensing games.

Ubi's software uses the Kinect sensors to figure out where people are touching, pointing, tapping or swiping on a surface, and how that relates to the projected interface. One benefit of the software is that it will work with regular, off-the-shelf products. For example, it will project and control Windows software, so you'll be able to project any Windows game or application onto a wall out of the box. You'll also be able to use it with any projector. All you'll need is the Ubi software and a surface to project onto.

The $149 software is available for preorder.
The Japanese company Fujitsu has done some incredible research with video projection displays. The most impressive is a projection product that integrates real-world objects. The way it works is that with a simple gesture a book, magazine page or picture can be scanned and then converted into a digital version in the same place, and at the same size as the original.

For example, let's say your projector displays four electronic bills on the kitchen table, plus you've got a paper bill that came in the mail. By simply drawing your finger diagonally across the paper, you could digitize the paper bill. You could then toss the paper version and use the electronic one in its place.

Another use for the technology is to make paper pictures and documents interactive. For example, advertisers could put codes in ads; when you lay the ad flat on the table and touch the code, interactive videos or coupons or other information could appear to jump right off the page.

Fujitsu plans to start selling the product in 2014. Its name and price have not yet been announced.