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Kinect-like device makes everything a touchscreen

Microsoft Research

Who needs an iPhone when the OmniTouch device from Microsoft Research can give you an iArm.

What would it look if you didn't have to carry around a phone, tablet or other touchscreen gadget to tend to your email and other on-the-go computing needs?

A team at Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon University have an idea. The researchers have unveiled a project in the works that uses a Kinect-like camera to transform any surface into a touchscreen.

And I do mean any surface — a piece of paper, a wall, a table, your hand, your arm ...

The proof-of-concept prototype — called OmniTouch — is a wearable camera/projection system that "allows the wearer to use their hands, arms and legs as graphical, interactive surfaces," according to a write up at the Microsoft Research website. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal.)

The OmniTouch prototype my be rather large and bulky - not to mention downright goofy looking - at this stage, but researchers say that miniturizing it would not be difficult.

"Today’s mobile computers provide omnipresent access to information ... It is undeniable that they have forever changed the way we work, play and interact," the team writes in the OmniTouch research paper here. "However, mobile interaction is far from solved. Diminutive screens and buttons mar the user experience, and otherwise prevent us from realizing their full potential."

Their solution: The OmniTouch device combines a small, laser-based projector and a depth-sensing camera. The camera tracks the movements of the user's fingers and works on a principle similar to Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect controller for the Xbox 360. In fact, their original prototype used a Kinect camera. But the PrimeSense camera they settled on has been customized to work at short range.

"We wanted to capitalize on the tremendous surface area the real world provides," writes Hrvoje Benko, a researcher in the Natural Interaction Research group at Microsoft. "The surface area of one hand alone exceeds that of typical smart phones. Tables are an order of magnitude larger than a tablet computer. If we could appropriate these ad hoc surfaces in an on-demand way, we could deliver all of the benefits of mobility while expanding the user’s interactive capability."

To see how OmniTouch transforms everyday surfaces into interactive screens, check out this video demonstration:

The way users are able to resize the screen to fit different surfaces — and even use two different surfaces at one time — is pretty spectacular.

Of course, as you can see from the above photo and video, it's not like using OmniTouch rids us of our bulky gadgetry. Instead, you have to wear the camera/projector mounted on one shoulder — sort of like a pirate might wear a parrot.

And unless you're a pirate, most of us would probably prefer to have a touchscreen phone stashed in our pocket at this point. Still, it's not hard to imagine a future in which this gadgetry is so small as to be hardly noticeable. In fact, the team insists that it wouldn't be that difficult to make a future version of OmniTouch "the size of a matchbox and as easy to wear as a pendant or a watch."

You can read their complete paper on the OmniTouch project here.

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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+.  And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.