Everyday surfaces such as walls and windows could be turned into huge interactive touch screens thanks to work being carried out at Cardiff University.
Sound waves created by touch could talk to computers
A team working on a Europe-wide research project is investigating using touch and sound waves as a way of transmitting data to a computer without the need for a keyboard or other device.
It could mean by simply tapping a finger on a table in a restaurant, a person could send a meal order direct to the kitchen, or press on a shop window to place an order for a product.
The idea resembles touchscreens already used in some places, but could be applied to almost any surface - and in the future, possibly to moving hands through the air alone.
The technology, called Tangible Acoustic Interfaces for Computer Human Interactions (Tai-Chi), is being researched at the Manufacturing Engineering Centre at the university.
Dr Ming Yang from MEC explained: "The vast majority of us communicate with our computers using tangible interfaces such as the keyboard, mouse, games console or touch screen.
"Although these are in common usage they have certain disadvantages.
"We are required to be 'within reach' of the computer and most devices lack robustness (to heat, pressure, water) restricting their spheres of application.
"Although some voice activated and vision systems for interacting with computers do exist, they are as yet unreliable."
The research is based around the principle that interacting with any object produces sound waves within the object and on its surface.
When a person touches an object, sensors will detect the "sound" and send a message to a remote computer.
Physical objects such as tables, walls and windows can become giant three-dimensional touch screens.
Dr Yang's colleague Chris Matthews said: "Every surface can become a touch pad, much as currently there are touch pads when you are buying your tickets at the railway station, perhaps.
"We hope to develop technology whereby the whole room would become a touch pad."
Acoustic sensing techniques have been used before by the military and in industry, but the team say none is suitable for the multi-media applications envisaged by Tai-Chi.
Some commercial products also exist but are limited in their application to flat glass surfaces only, and are restricted by size.
"Our goal is to make this technology accessible to all, "said Dr Yang.
"Once that is done, the possibilities of application are endless."