A team of researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University joined with Disney Research to invent a way to turn any surface into an interactive smart wall with special conductive paint.

The project, dubbed Wall++, enables users to place or move light switches or other controls anywhere on a wall that is most convenient, or to control video games by using gestures.

By monitoring activity in the room, the wall can adjust light levels when it senses movement and alert a user in another location when appliances or electronics are turned on or off. The smart wall also can estimate the position and pose of people standing near it.

The team outlined its approach in a research paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in April. Members used painter’s tape to create a cross-hatched pattern, then applied two coats of a water-based paint containing nickel. Once dry, the diamond-shaped mesh becomes a network of electrodes, which are connected to a custom circuit board, resulting in a wall that acts like a giant touchpad.

The coating and underlying technology costs about $20 per square meter, which the researchers say make this a low-cost project for the potential value it can provide.

“Walls are usually the largest surface area in a room, yet we don’t make much use of them other than to separate spaces, and perhaps hold up pictures and shelves,” observed Chris Harrison, assistant professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “As the internet of things and ubiquitous computing become reality, it is tempting to think that walls can become active parts of our living and work environments.”