Carnegie Mellon researchers tout new CapCam device pairing process

CapCam (Carnegie Mellon)
Devices can be used to exchange business cards by tapping each other. (Image: MIT Technology Review)

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed a system called CapCam, similar to NFC, that pairs devices using touch screens, and it could have implications for how data is transferred between mobile devices and screen surfaces in the future.

CapCam, featured in a research paper in November, is drawing attention as an alternative to manual pairing technologies like Bluetooth, without the specific hardware requirements of options like NFC. CapCam pairs a “cap” device with a capacitive touchscreen to a “cam” device with a camera sensor.

By way of example, smartphones and tablets could be paired with each other, and these devices could be paired to even larger touchscreens, such as smart whiteboards and touchscreen monitors. Because the technology uses a phone’s rear camera, it’s applicable to both new and older devices.

In a YouTube video, researchers describe how CapCam can be used to enable smartphones to establish quick, ad hoc connections with a host touchscreen device simply by pressing a device to the screen’s surface. The video also shows how it could be used to transfer data between a personal device and a larger display, drag files on and off of smartphones or even play air hockey on a large surface, with sound effects when the puck hits and multidevice interaction. Phones can also exchange business cards by being pressed together.

NFC, which is the technology behind things like Apple Pay, took years to get where it’s at today, and Bluetooth’s original days date back to the 1990s. But unlike NFC, no hardware configurations are necessary for CapCam, so it conceivably could be offered as a downloadable app, although there’s no reason it couldn’t also be baked into a device’s OS.

The researchers also point out that while many devices support Bluetooth pairing, such pairing options are generally time-consuming and cumbersome and often, users must confirm or manually enter connection parameters, like a network identifier. While short-range NFC aims to mitigate many of these issues, it still requires specific hardware on both devices and only indicates a device’s presence, not position. In addition, NFC is not commonly available on larger devices, such as laptops, tablets and interactive surfaces, which is what they’re chiefly targeting.

The research was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a Google Faculty Research Award and Qualcomm.

MIT Technology Review notes that previously, flashing lights have been used to pair devices and touch screens to track other devices, but CapCam is unique in its method for combining the two techniques. Next up: The team is interested in finding a commercial partner that wants to license the technology.