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Harrison Earns Lasting Impact Award for Turning Everyday Surfaces Into Touch Screens


HCII faculty member Chris Harrison earned the UIST Lasting Impact Award for his 2011 work on OmniTouch, a wearable system that turns everyday surfaces into an interactive screen.

Good technology takes time to get right. When widespread use of touch screens skyrocketed around 2007, for example, the research had been underway for roughly 50 years.

School of Computer Science faculty member Chris Harrison is no stranger to the way that research spans years or decades before culminating in new innovations. He recently earned a User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) Lasting Impact Award for a 2011 project he worked on as a Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII). A project, he says, that is still evolving.

Harrison, now an associate professor in the HCII, was recognized for OmniTouch, a wearable system that turns everyday surfaces into an interactive screen. Using a body-worn projector and sensing system to capitalize on the surface area that the real world provides, OmniTouch users can turn walls, tables and even their arms or hands into a touch screen.

"Studies show that, ergonomically, humans like to work on surfaces that they can touch, rather than having to claw at the air with no depth perception like we sometimes envision with virtual reality," Harrison said. "It makes sense to borrow these physical surfaces from the environment."

Harrison developed OmniTouch with Andy Wilson and Hrvoje Benko at Microsoft Research during his time interning with the company. The project draws from a variety of fields, including touch interaction, surface computing, free-space gesturing, computer vision, wearables and ubiquitous computing.

In their paper, "OmniTouch: Wearable Multitouch Interaction Everywhere," the team conducted a user study of 12 participants, analyzing more than 6,000 touch inputs on four different surfaces — wall, hand, arm and a handheld notepad.

The researchers outfitted participants with sensing hardware made up of three components: a depth camera, a pico-projector and a metal frame to mount the equipment on their shoulder. The tests consisted of a clicking trial, a distance experiment, and shape drawing to measure the tracking's precision and accuracy. Results demonstrated that touch input can be achieved on everyday surfaces, with walls being nearly as accurate as conventional touch screens and the technology performing best at a close or average distance.

"Ten years ago, this work was really painting a picture of augmented reality. But technology takes 20 to 30 years to perfect," Harrison said.

Much like touch screens in the latter half of the 20th century, OmniTouch is still evolving. Turning arbitrary surfaces into interactive platforms requires sophisticated hardware and sensing, and to be truly mobile, systems must either fit in the pocket or be wearable. Harrison says that ideally this technology might be best used in lenses in the future.

"What happens in research is that sometimes you get the technology wrong, but you get the science correct," he said. "While a projector worn on your shoulder might not be practical, it's the foundational research — the vision and concepts — that has a lasting impact."

Harrison received the award during the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in November in Bend, Oregon. He says it's surreal to receive a Lasting Impact Award.

"I still see myself as sort of mid-career faculty or even junior faculty," he said. "So, it's kind of weird to have lasting impact when I feel like I'm just getting started in my career."


by Kayla Papakie

For More Information

Aaron Aupperlee | 412-268-9068 |

Related People
Chris Harrison

Research Areas
Sensors, Wearables, Tools