A version of this article originally appeared on Motherboard.
You may think your smartphone is just about enough technology for you, with all of its apps and emoji and notifications, but lots of people in the tech industry are already over it, and they’re hunting for the Next Big Thing™. Is it smartwatches? Virtual reality? How about something more organic, like, say... your skin?
No, this isn’t the plot of the next David Cronenberg movie. Tactum is a real idea for a whole new type of user interface that uses your skin as the primary input method. Cooked up by researchers at design collective Madlab.cc and funded by Autodesk, Tactum is software that lets you manipulate digital information projected directly on your body.
It takes video projectors and shines visual data directly onto your forearm. Then, consumer-grade motion sensors including Leap Motion and Microsoft Kinect track your opposite hand as it interacts with the data being displayed. Basically, as you caress your forearm, you change whatever information is being projected on it. Tactum’s creators also have a less flashy (and less fleshy) version of their program that doesn’t use video projectors, instead showing the results of your caresses on a virtual copy of your disembodied forearm floating on a nearby tablet or computer screen.
It looks and sounds weird as hell, and seems highly impractical for doing common computing tasks like, say, filling out Excel spreadsheets. But the main purpose Tactum’s creators envision for the system so far is as a 3D modeling tool for creating highly customized, on-demand wearable products that can be 3D-printed—anything from ornamental bracelets (spiky ones at that, in case you’re still in your goth phase), to orthopedics such as casts and wrist braces.
The prototype results of products designed with Tactum range from the noticeable to nightmarish, but Tactum’s creators believe the system is a viable and potentially superior alternative to 3D product design than what’s currently possible with touchscreens and conventional WIMP interfaces.
“Today, we tend to design wearables in virtual CAD environments that ignore the body,” says Madeline Gannon, head of Madlab.cc and a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “For designers, this means that there is a lot of guess work as to how a digital design might behave on a physical body. So what if, instead, we could remove all this guesswork, and just digitally design these wearables directly on the body?”
At least a few others seem to agree. Tactum’s creators tested the tablet-based version of their software by inviting 10 people with varying levels of experience in 3D modeling and design to try making their own wristbands, and all of them had fairly positive responses. Furthermore, the Tactum research paper describing the results of this tiny study won a “best paper honorable mention” at the Association for Computing Machinery’s upcoming annual CHI conference taking place on April 23rd in Seoul, which is when and where the researchers will present their work to date.
Tactum is a relatively young project—Gannon says she and her colleagues started working on it in June 2014—but the creators are optimistic about the impact it could have when it comes to designing future apparel and accessories.
“We are particularly excited about the medical possibilities for our system,” Gannon says. “For example, through our prototypes we see the potential for doctors or physical therapists rapidly customize braces or casts based on the patients week-by-week rehabilitation.”
So if I break my arm a decade or so from now, should I expect a doctor to go all Dead Ringers on me and bust out some creepy medical equipment designed using Tactum? “I'm not too familiar with David Cronenberg films, but I'd agree that our printed prototypes have similar unfamiliar (yet anatomical) sensibilities,” Gannon tells me. Long live the New Flesh.