Alexa, Tell Me What is on the Table?

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Now Alexa can answer you and even recommend what to do with the objects like, what recipes can be made with them (if they are food items), or even tell you if you forgot something like your keys, wallet. lipstick, or credit card.

How can this be you may ask? The answer is… Smart Fabrics. You may have purchased a smart fabric, like the Christmas sweater with led lights woven into the fabric (my wife has one), or the sneakers that display messages (my son has three pairs), and a face mask that also displays messages (my son also has one). But smart fabrics have developed way beyond this. They are fabrics that can react to environmental stimuli. In other words, they have a brain! Now they are many and varied, like fabrics that react to temperature to keep you cool or warm. There are many smart fabrics being developed for the military, firefighters, police, and other high-risk professions.

The fabric that is being developed that can connect to Alexa, or any computer or smart phone, is basically a smart tablecloth! This is being developed and tested by a team of researchers at Dartmouth College.

The team made this smart tablecloth using capacitive sensing for object recognition. (Watch out, nerdy language!). They call the material Capacitivo (really original name, give them a break, they are just science nerds). Let me explain this nerdy term. This means that objects can be identified by sensing the electrical resistance, the shape, and the weight of the object, and It is not necessary for any user input to function.

The team made this material by using diamond shaped electrodes that are layered onto a cloth, a similar process as iron on t-shirt decals. There is also a layer of material that acts as a ground underneath the electrodes. When an object is placed on the cloth, the resistance of the material is measured along with the shape. The grounding material also helps to identify the object by measuring the resistance as an electrical current passes from the electrode to the ground. There is a special module that is attached to the material and is connected to a computational device, like a computer, smart phone, or Alexa.

So how does the computational device know what the object placed on the cloth is? The program that determines this uses machine learning to have a catalog of the characteristics of these items. In other words, it learns what the objects are by the response of the electrical signals from the cloth and module. Machine learning is a fairly new field of computation and is a form of artificial intelligence (AI) which is transforming our lives as I type this. AI is teaching robots how to respond without human input, as well as the development of autonomous vehicles, such as trains, planes and automobiles, (movie reference, one of my favorites), and many more applications like, research in medicine, physics, materials development, and weather prediction. (And not to program robots to take over the world).

The material was tested with twenty different objects and was successful 94.5% of the time. Just what objects did they test you may ask? Various objects were tested including, fruits and vegetables, a container, different liquids is in the container (milk, juice, whisky, etc.), how full the container is, and everyday items like a lipstick, and a potted plant. Alexa then can tell you when the plant needs to be watered, suggest recipes for the foods on the table, or tell you where you left your lipstick.

There are limitations though. Light weight objects, like a credit card, are not as easily identified because they don’t leave a heavy footprint that makes contact with the grounding material. It also can’t tell you if you are hungry or thirsty or drunk or stupid or tired or cheating on your wife or if your wife is cheating on you or burgling the house or hanging from the ceiling…..

I would love to hear back from you on your opinion if you think that people might actually buy a smart tablecloth. Of course people buy just about anything that is high tech and can be connected to a computational devise!

Here is a video of the smart tablecloth if you don’t believe me and think I am pulling your leg, (no it can’t tell jokes about the objects either), and at the end I will post some links for further reading:

Dartmouth College. “Smart tablecloth can find fruit and help with watering the plants: Interactive fabric senses everyday non-metallic objects.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 October 2020. <>.

Te-Yen Wu, Lu Tan, Yuji Zhang, Teddy Seyed, Xing-Dong Yang. Capacitivo: Contact-Based Object Recognition on Interactive Fabrics usingCapacitive SensingUIST ’20, October 20–23, 2020, Virtual Event, USA, 2020 DOI: 10.1145/3379337.3415829

#science #smartmaterials #technology #computers


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