'Multitoe' project offers touch interface -- for feet

System sits flush with floor and when someone stands on it, the floor lights up (see video, below)

Researchers from Germany's Hasso Plattner Institute previewed a new touch interface called Multitoe that uses feet, instead of fingers or hands, at the Computer Human Interaction conference in Atlanta Sunday.

"We're wondering if the main ideas of multitouch as we know from Microsoft Surface and a couple of tables can be expanded into rooms," said Patrick Baudisch, a professor at the Institute and chair of its Human Computer Interaction group. "We're building a floor that is based on the same concept as multitouch tables."

The group's prototype is a proof of concept, relatively small and can accommodate about one user, but Baudisch said that he hopes the system could one day scale much larger, perhaps the size of a whole warehouse.

"Direct touch is typically considered a very desirable and natural way of interaction," Baudisch said. "On the other hand direct touch is kind of limited to arms length right now. If I have a table and the table is substantially larger than my arm then I can walk around the table, but at some point it becomes impossible."

The system sits flush with the floor and when someone stands on it, the floor will light up. According the Baudisch, the system can store user profiles based each user's shoe sole. He said that each shoe sole is slightly different, even different sizes of the same model shoe appear differently, and the software can tell the difference. Once the profiles are stored, the interface can identify users.

In order to enable direct manipulation on floors, the group uses a technique called frustrated total internal reflection (FTIR) with high camera resolution. The concept is complex, but light is first injected to the pane of glass, on which a user stands, from below.

A team of German researchers are working on a new touch interface that doesn't use hands or fingers, but feet and are presenting a preview of the work at this year's Computer Human Interaction or CHI conference in Atlanta.

"When something touches the glass (sole and glass have a similar index of refraction) the light is not reflected anymore," Baudish explained in a follow-up email exchange. "It escapes and illuminates the sole instead, but only those parts that touch (the reflection is 'frustrated')." The camera below the glass can see this and "all is black except the light spots where the contact is taking place."

Baudisch said that one of the challenges was trying to tell whether or not a user wanted to interact with the system. "How not to interact with a table is you take your hands off," he said. "How not to interact with the floor is kind of hard because you basically have to levitate," he joked.

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