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Metaio shows off thermal touch technology: An interface that appears out of thin air

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It seems technology just got weirder and more interesting all at once. A German company, called Metaio, has been developing the "Thermal Touch" technology that is able to create user interfaces out of thin air. These interfaces rely on various technology working together with the emphasis on making us of augmented reality (AR) for digital imagery appear real to the naked eye.

The "Thermal Touch" user interface that Metaio has created can be inputted on any surface. It is an alternative way to input commands to a touchscreen since it relies on an infrared camera, in a similar way touchscreens rely on capacitive sensors, to sense input from the touch of a finger.

The camera senses the residual heat from the finger as it touches the thin air; but users see objects with the help of augmented reality instead of just thin air. AR is camera driven and combines the use of real world surfaces, objects or dynamics with digital interaction. Readers may be familiar with some AR phone apps that will show a character dance on top of a table or any surface as long as their phone is pointing at the surface with the character becoming visible on the phone. This concept takes that idea a step further.

It actually allows users to do things like play a game of chess entirely virtually and without a real chess board and pieces present.

"Our R&D department had a few thermal cameras that they'd just received and kind of on a whim they started playing around," Metaio spokesman Trak Lord told Gigaom. "One researcher noticed that every time he touched something, it left a very visible heat signature imprint."

The key to the user interface is a thermal camera that adds a layer of understanding and tracking past just guessing. It is very precise and can pinpoint exact touches on a surface.

Even though the project is still in the R&D stages, the team behind it is already thinking of ways to adopt it to the real world and market it for certain users. Examples listed by Gigaom include security keypads that only the user can see; newspaper ads with clickable links; interactive car manuals that show what drivers need to know about the components they want to find out about.

When manufacturers start inputting thermal cameras into their mobile devices -- such as smartphones, wearables and tablets -- that is when the technology can take off and impact consumers. Lords estimates, as told by Gigaom, that this will take about five years of time to happen, if the market is ready for it.

"The best graphic user interface (GUI) for wearable headsets has yet to be determined - device makers have so far experimented with voice navigation, companion devices and even projection, but in order for consumers to adopt new technology on a massive level it needs to be convenient and, above all, accessible in countless scenarios," Metaio says on its blog.

The parts that the Thermal Touch interface relies on right now include an IR thermal camera, a visible light camera, and a tablet. All of these parts work together to produce the final result, which is a user interface like no other and one that until recently only sci-fi movies have showcased.

Here is a video where Metaio showcases the technology and shows what it can do:

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