Digital Foam

Deformable Surfaces supporting 3D Tactile Human-computer Interactions

Welcome to the Digital Foam project page, this site presents our research into deformable input devices to support new human-computer interactions technologies. This project is supported by the Wearable Computer Laboratory and the School of Computer and information Science, University of South Australia. The project is operated by Dr Ross Smith.

For portable information please download the Digital Foam Flyer

What is Digital Foam?

Researchers at The University of South Australia’s Wearable Computer Lab (WCL) have developed a “Digital Foam” material that recognizes and responds to touch. The foam material is highly flexible and can accurately detect multiple simultaneous deformations in its surface. Multiple applications for Digital Foam are anticipated, from human-computer interfaces for mobile devices and home entertainment games controllers, to medical mannequins used for training surgeons and doctors.

Project Goals

The aim of this project is to investigate the design, development, and evaluation of computer input devices intended to improve human computer interactions by creating advancements on our exciting new sensor Digital Foam. These new input devices are constructed with a foam-like material incorporating many sensors to capture the location of user’s touch-point and the individual depth of each touch-point. The main technical aims of this project are:

  1. Build modular interaction devices for large surfaces with enhanced sensor capability;
  2. Enhancements to self-shape with the use of actuators;
  3. Addition of visualisation information through projected graphical information; and
  4. Develop the techniques to improve collaboration between users.

Videos of first prototypes

A summary of the first two Digital Foam sensor prototypes.

Youtube Link

Colour picker application is projected onto the surface of the Digital Foam sensor.

Youtube Link

Single cursor location found and projected

Youtube Link

Multiple cursor locations found and projected

Youtube Link

Second multiple cursor demonstration.

Youtube Link

Raw data shown on 3D surface

Youtube Link


Surface modeling and geometry capture are used in a range of fields including Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), computer graphics, medical imaging, visualization systems, and artistic fields. To support these systems, a variety of different input devices and techniques have been developed to assist the modeling process. Clay and similar materials have been used for sculpting real models for many years. Familiarity with sculpting lead the team to investigate how a similar input device could be constructed for a computer. The team identified some of the natural modeling techniques used when sculpting, such as multi-handed and multi-finger input. To support similar clay-like modeling techniques they conceptualized a user interface made of conductive foam since it naturally supports sculpting operations.

The invention presents a novel and unique technology called, Digital Foam. The technology enables the capture of the shape and size of a piece of foam. With this information the team can wrap the foam around hard surface substrates and then capture very precise touch-based gestures and movements with various degrees of pressure. These capabilities have led to the creation of a number of prototype devices, including a virtual-modeling clay environment for digital sculpturing.


The technology has a number of unique advantages:

  • Non-planar surfaces can be covered with the material allowing organic shapes to be covered with the sensor.
  • No cameras are required to detect deformation in the surface of the material, broadening potential applications and significantly lowering the cost.
  • The foam surface can detect multi-touch points (whole hands as well as fingers or stylus) along with the pressure applied at each point.
  • The level of accuracy can be controlled and adapted according to the specific application for the technology – from 0.5mm.
  • Being a foam and highly flexible, it enables the foam to be “wrapped around” different shaped objects and substrates. Additionally is exceedingly light in weight, making it suitable for weight specific or used in confined spaces as soft controls – such as in a car or aeroplane.
  • The technology blends readily available, off-the-shelf components with low-cost technology the team has developed, significantly lowering the cost against competing technology.


  • The Australian Research Council awarded the “Deformable Surfaces supporting 3D tactile Human Computer Interaction” $255,000.00 to support the project from 2011-2013.
  • ITEK at the university of South Australia have provided legal support to protect the IP generated during the project. A patent has been filed to protect the Digital Foam invention.
  • Early career development award for the project “Applying the Digital Foam sensor to capture gesture information for sports visualisations” for the amount of $4190.00 in 2011.


  • [PDF] Smith, R. T., Thomas B. H. and Piekarski, W., Digital Foam Interaction Techniques for 3D Modelling, ACM symposium on Virtual Reality Software Technology (VRST), Bordeaux, France, 27-29 October 2008
  • [PDF] Smith, R. T., Thomas, B. H., Piekarski, W., Tech Note:Digital Foam, IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces (3DUI), Reno, Nevada, 8-9 Mar 2008

Further information

Ross Smith – Wearable Computer Laboratory –

Bruce Thomas – Wearable Computer Laboratory –

John Haskey – ITEK –