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Pop around Town﹕Smart Walls

【明報專訊】For those of us living in the city, we have grown accustomed to be surrounded by "smart screens". From the large outdoor digital screens of moving images (such as those seen on the tall International Commerce Centre building), the indoor digital advertising billboards in shopping malls, to our personal digital devices, modern life has been transformed by a new, interesting kind of realisation. We now realise that walls are not merely plain surfaces. Instead, they can be used as decoration, public announcement, advertisement, and even digital art.

The early smart urban screens started to appear only about forty years ago, if we take the installation of the famous Spectacolour Board in New York's Times Square as a convenient point of origin. If Spectacolour in the mid-1970s was about turning a dull wall surface into a spectacle good for sophisticated advertising, by now cumulative changes in digital technology and in the creative use of urban space have brought about new ways of thinking about walls. Architects and designers have recently turned to the walls inside our homes, offices, and restaurants.

They have realised that walls in human environments are basically inactive. Their primary function is to separate spaces. Architects, interior designers, computer experts, and engineers see this as a missed opportunity. What if walls are smart infrastructure instead of merely separating spaces? Could walls enhance spaces with sensing capability and interactivity? In the US, a research team from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research has been studying a new kind of human-computer interaction using walls. They have discovered a special kind of high-tech paint known as conductive paint. It is a type of wall paint that is electrically conductive when it is connected to a sensor and computer hardware. Together, the wall paint treatment and sensing hardware will create a surface that can track a person's body shape and gesture movements when they stand near the wall. Also, it can detect what electrical appliances are active and where they are located. In the future, we can control smart home functions, such as turning on lighting by tapping lightly on the wall, or alert a user in another location when an electric kettle turns off. There can be many more applications for hospitals, museums, gyms, and offices, because the "smart walls" could also detect humidity, sound, vibration or other type of signals. The researchers suggest that they could even harvest energy and display information. After the outsides of buildings have "come alive", the insides of our homes and offices will soon become "energetic" parts of our living and work environments.

■Writer's Profile

John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.

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