Based on their growing popularity as tactile and visual interfaces, touchscreen-based technologies are rapidly proliferating. A 2013 report by industry analyst IHS predicts that global shipments of touchscreen panels will reach 3 billion by the end of 2016. And a 2012 Forbes article predicts a day, though still far off, when every new display will be touch-enabled.

Canatu's carbon NanoBud
Canatu Canatu's carbon NanoBud

Therefore, it is no surprise to learn about a recent development that may broaden the reach of current touch-based technology. Reported earlier this month by the MIT Technology Review, Finland-based startup Canatu has found a way to turn nearly any surface into a touch sensor. The technology consists of a transparent polymer film that encapsulates what the company calls carbon NanoBuds, which are carbon nanotubes modified with spherical appendages that increase electrical conductivity. NanoBuds also enable great flexibility, allowing films to stretch by more than 200 percent of their original length, the company told the Review.

In addition to more adaptable electronic devices, Canatu's NanoBud film promises intriguing architecture and interior design applications. Although the technology cannot yet be applied to large areas, smaller surfaces such as cabinetry, counters, and glazing could become tactile electronic interfaces—even in adaptive reuse situations. To what extent it makes sense to proliferate touchscreen capabilities so widely, however, remains an important question.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.