A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles–based Disney Research have developed a method that can transform walls into smart surfaces. Using conductive paint and an electromagnetic sensor, users will be able to adjust room brightness or track use of electric appliances according to CMU.

"Walls are usually the largest surface area in a room, yet we don't make much use of them other than to separate spaces, and perhaps hold up pictures and shelves," said Chris Harrison, assistant professor of the CMU Human-Computer Interaction Institute in a press release. "As the Internet of Things and ubiquitous computing become reality, it is tempting to think that walls can become active parts of our living and work environments."

As part of the research, the team used painter's tape to create a cross-hatched pattern on a wall surface—an efficient method to create electrode patterns, according to the press release. Using a roller, the researchers then applied two coats of a conductive, water-based paint that contained nickel. The team then removed the tape, connected the electrodes, and applied a final coat of standard latex paint.

The resulting smart surface, dubbed Wall++, operates in two modes: "capactive sensing" and "electromagnetic sensing." In the capactive mode, the wall functions as a touchpad and could replace wall-mounted buttons and switches. In the electromagnetic mode, the electrodes track down electromagnetic transmissions of electric devices to identify and locate a particular device. According to Yang Zhang, one of the research collaborators, "similarly, if a person is wearing a device that emits an [electromagnetic] signature, the system can track the location of that person."

Wall++ has yet to be optimized for energy consumption, but the team estimates that a standard-sized smart wall could "consume about as much power as a standard touch screen."

This week, the team presented a paper on this method at the 2018 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Montreal, which received a Best Paper Award.