Displax plastic film can turn any surface into a touchscreen

[Update: See our updated story on what Displax forgot to say].

Displax is revealing a new plastic film with multitouch sensing. It can be placed over any display or even non-display surfaces, making them into interactive devices.

Portugal-based Displax calls this a “multitouch skin” which can be thinner than paper. The company has been working on it for the past decade and plans to launch commercial products in July.

If it works as billed, it could become an easy way to retrofit passive surfaces — glass, plastic or wood — so that they become interactive. All it takes is glue the plastic onto the surface — flat or curved — and then use the inputs from touch sensing to control functions on a computer attached to the screen. The surfaces range from 7 inches to nine feet, diagonally. The plastic film is about 100 microns, or the width of a human hair.

It works like this. Displax places a grid of nanowires that can detect the presence of up to 16 fingers (on a 50-inch screen) at any given time (that number will go up over time). When you press your finger on the grid, which is embedded in plastic, the wires send a signal showing the exact location of your finger to a controller, which can then pass the data to a computer. The plastic film can be applied to a liquid crystal display, even after the display is built. Currently, capacitive multitouch sensors have to be built into the TV’s glass during the manufacturing process. The screens can even detect if someone blows on a surface.

The uses for the multitouch skins could be myriad. You can put one over a flat-panel display in a museum to turn it into a multitouch kiosk. And since it can detect up to 16 fingers, more than one person can interact with the screen at any given time. The controller works with standard universal serial bus cables and ports.

‚ÄúThis opens up new possibilities for applications of multitouch technology,” said Miguel Fonseca, chief business
officer of Displax, in an interview.

Among the ideas are museum kiosks, multitouch flat-panel TVs, multitouch tables, and even interactive glass windows for storefronts. You could wrap it around a globe and then point at certain countries to trigger a video or audio explanation of the region. There are also expected applications in gaming. Fonseca said there are a number of pilot projects using the technology in Europe. Industries that could use it include telecom, retail, real estate, broadcast, pharmaceutics, finance and games.

The company works with partners who can make applications that take advantage of the technology. It provides the software drivers that make the hardware work with Windows, Linux and Mac OS computers. Displax will include several business applications with its products at no cost. Those apps will let customers display photos and video, access Google Maps and social networks, and play games.

The project started as a research idea in 2000. The company started to work on a business plan in 2004 and has been working on its current products since 2004 as a division of the EDIGMA Group. The company has 52 employees.

Partners on pilot projects include Accenture and IBM. Pricing hasn’t been set yet. Investors include InovCapital, the Society of Risk Capital of reference of the Portuguese Ministry of Economy and Innovation. The company hasn’t disclosed how much money it has raised. Rivals include Microsoft and 3M.

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