A system developed by Disney Research and Carnegie Mellon University researchers uses simple RFID tags to quickly make physical objects, such as the spaceship model shown here, interactive with digital devices.

What if the soft fabric of your pillow could silently monitor how well you’re sleeping? What if you could play your favorite video game just by moving your body, no handheld controller necessary, or wear a shirt that politely reminds you not to slouch?

It isn’t science fiction. And with new tech being developed at Carnegie Mellon University, it won’t even be expensive or complicated.

A team of Ph.D. students at CMU has developed a new system for using simple, cloth radio sensors to measure the movements of human bodies and much more. By adding the kind of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags often found in retails stores to everyday items, the team can get precise measurements from the tags in real time.

“We can turn any soft surface in the environment into a touchscreen,” said Jingxian Wang, a Ph.D. student in CMU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

While much of today’s wearable technology relies on internal sensors and easily depleted power sources, the RFID tags developed at CMU are battery-free, cost only a few cents and can even withstand many cycles in a washing machine. In announcing the breakthrough, the researchers said their system could eventually lead to a wide array of smart cloth, pillows and carpets.

“By attaching these paper-like RFID tags to clothing, we were able to demonstrate millimeter accuracy in skeletal tracking,” says Haojian Jin, another student on the team.

In addition to tracking the contortions of human bodies, the team says this tech may also have broad applications in design and engineering. In 2018, the researchers used a robot to drag 50 RFID tags across the length of the 10th Street Bridge in Downtown Pittsburgh and were then able to detect minute differences in the sidewalk’s elevation.

Check out a demonstration of the system here:

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.