Real Disney Magic: Gadgets That Know Who You Are, Just By Touch

It’s a brave new world, where any object could effortlessly recognize you.

What if your iPad could recognize you, not through passwords, retinal scans, or even fingerprints, but a simple touch? Well, that’s exactly what technology being developed by researchers Chris Harrison (Carnegie Mellon University), Munehiko Sato (University of Tokyo), and Ivan Poupyrev (Disney Research) can do. Without wearing silly gloves or extra gadgets of any sort, any object you touch could recognize you.


We’ve already seen the first wave of this technology in Disney’s amazing multi-touch houseplants. Now, it’s being turned to humans. Whenever a user touches a display or object of any sort, their Capacitive Fingerprinting technique fires electrical frequencies through that user’s body. And by analyzing the exact impedance–the frequencies’ interaction with the particular biochemical makeup of your body–the system can identify you and whomever else is around you tapping at the screen, too.

In fact, the ID technology is so hypersensitive, it won’t even recognize your body’s state eight hours later. “It is not that it is too sensitive, but that the condition and electrical properties of the human body change with time and location,” Poupyrev tells Co.Design. “So, at this point we’re investigating its use for short-term interaction that happens in simple games or in location-based entertainment.”

In other words, while Capacitive Fingerprinting might not work as a long-term password replacement, it could be perfect for keeping track of four players tapping on a touch screen board game. It also has countless other potential, when you realize this doesn’t need to be a touch-screen technology at all. I imagine a football that could know when it’s in the quarterback’s hands vs. the wide receiver’s, or party glasses that would never allow someone to take a sip from someone else’s drink again. Indeed, Capacitive Fingerprinting is almost most exciting when it’s connected to devices that aren’t normally as omniscient as smartphones and tablets, but the countless slew of absolutely perfect objects–the tables and the doorknobs–that our world has labeled “dumb.” Or as Pouprev puts it a bit more poetically: “A physical, inanimate object can ‘feel’ who is touching. So, it is kind of magical.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.