SXSW Keynote Speaker Olivier Bau Talks About Creating Invisible Objects Using Electricity

Electrostatic interfaces – systems that make your fingers “feel” textures on a smooth metal plate – have been around for a long time. They haven’t quite caught on because the sensation is a little creepy and it’s not quite foolproof. However, a researcher at Disney Research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Olivier Bau, has created a unique system that creates these sensations on any surface using a special wearable system that actually controls the electricity sent to nerves in your skin.

His Revel project is an example of this technology in action. An object is treated with a special paint and then a “generator” attached to the body. As you move your finger along a surface, the system changes the way the surface feels to the touch and can recreate ridges, etched lines, and other sensations. It’s the first step in true universal interaction with objects.

Bau also discussed other projects in the works including one in Tokyo that allows you to create invisible physical objects by controlling the muscles in your hand. That’s right: you could pick up an invisible chess piece and your fingers would freeze at just the right spot so it would feel like you’re holding something sold.

Bau now lives in Los Angeles but is continuing work on the “invisible” for Disney’s research arm. I asked him if he had to wear mouse ears at work and he very demurely refused to answer.