New technology enables computing with the wave of a hand


Aoxiang Tang, Liechao Huang and Yingzhe Hu

A FORWARD-THINKING TEAM of electrical engineering students has designed an interactive display surface that allows users to control objects on a screen simply by gesturing in the air. The SpaceTouch surface can either replace an existing touchscreen or be embedded below a table or behind a wall, and can interface with a phone or computer.

A wide variety of uses are possible for the technology, especially in settings where touching a screen is difficult, according to the team, which consists of electrical engineering graduate students Yingzhe Hu, Liechao Huang and Aoxiang Tang.

For instance, a surgeon in an operating room could use SpaceTouch to scroll through a patient’s X-rays. A cook could browse recipes on a surface embedded in an oven or refrigerator door. And three-dimensional sensing could create new possibilities for video games and educational tools.

SpaceTouch will make smartphones, tablets and other computers easier to use in an unobtrusive way, according to Naveen Verma, an associate professor of electrical engineering and a faculty adviser on the project, along with electrical engineering professor Sigurd Wagner and James Sturm, the Stephen R. Forrest Professor in Electrical Engineering and the director of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials.

“We want to interact extensively with our electronics,” Verma said. “But our base technology — the microchip — is small. It’s more appropriate, and I think more compelling, to have a display or interface that is as big as we are.” SpaceTouch makes it possible to control phones or laptops on larger surfaces. Compared to the popular Xbox 360 Kinect gaming console, SpaceTouch can detect motion at shorter distances, in a variety of lighting conditions and using less power.

The 3-D motion sensing of SpaceTouch is made possible by the addition of an extra layer beneath an everyday touchscreen. The upper sensing layer is a matrix of motion-sensing electrodes. A specialized computer chip directs the electrodes to send out a voltage that oscillates, or goes up and down at a constant frequency, creating an electric field that extends to about a foot in front of the screen.

When a hand moves through the electric field, it disrupts the field in a way that changes the frequency of the voltage oscillation. To prevent the display layer from interfering with the motion-sensing electric field, the team added a transparent, conductive shielding layer below the sensing layer, and designed the computer chip to synchronize the voltage oscillations of the two layers.

To explore commercialization of the technology Hu, Huang and Tang participated in the eLab Summer Accelerator Program, which is run by Princeton’s Keller Center in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Discovery2014_SpaceTouchdiagram“The eLab program is our first contact with the real business world,” Huang said. “Research is quite different from developing a commercial product.” For example, Huang said, they have learned to consider the needs of different customers and to put together an effective business pitch. The team has obtained a provisional patent, and has already presented SpaceTouch to representatives from large technology companies.

–By Molly Sharlach

Annual Research Report

The Office of the Dean for Research supports Princeton’s role as one of the world’s leading research universities by uniting people, resources and opportunities for the creation, preservation and transmission of knowledge. The dean administers research activities at Princeton through the following five offices: Corporate and Foundation Relations, Technology Licensing, Research and Project Administration, Research Integrity and Assurance, and Laboratory Animal Resources. The dean also consults with the University Research Board to formulate and implement policies on research.

Figure AFunding for research at Princeton comes from the federal government as well as other external and internal sources. In fiscal year 2013 (FY2013), 30 percent of the award funding came from the National Institutes of Health, with 20 percent from the Department of Defense and 17 percent from the National Science Foundation. (See Figure A.)

External sources funded 1,363 separate projects in FY2013 (not including the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory). There were 612 sponsored projects in the natural sciences, 467 in engineering and applied science, 146 in the humanities and social sciences, and 138 in centers, institutes and nondepartmental programs.



Figure BExpenditures for these projects totaled $199 million — with roughly 85 percent from government and 15 percent from foundations, corporations and other sources. Including PPPL, the University received approximately $280 million in FY2013 in research funding from external sources. (See Figure B.)




Figure CPrinceton researchers contribute many discoveries that lead to patentable innovations and startups, including TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals, which is developing cancer drugs, and Tiger Optics, which manufactures sensors for detecting toxic gases. In FY2013, Technology Licensing oversaw the patenting of 29 inventions, 33 licenses and $136 million in income earned from licensing. The office worked with 277 student, staff and faculty inventors. (See Figure C.)



Funding highlights:

• The National Science Foundation awarded $2.6 million for a project known as Dark Side, which aims to detect dark matter in the universe. The principal investigator is Cristiano Galbiati, associate professor of physics.
• The National Institutes of Health provided $2 million to study the structure and behavior of telomeres, which are parts of chromosomes that may play a role in the prevention of cancer. The research is led by Virginia Zakian, the Harry C. Wiess Professor in the Life Sciences.
• The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research granted $3 million to study the biology of aging in the laboratory of Coleen Murphy, associate professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.
• The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supplied $4 million in support for research on how states can maximize coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The lead researcher is Heather Howard, director of the State Health Reform Assistance Network at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
• New Jersey-based Primus Green Energy Inc., an alternative fuel company, provided support to the group led by Christodoulos Floudas, the Stephen C. Macaleer ’63 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, for research on synthetic fuels.