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Armed with electromagnetic sensors, Disney’s new wearable can tell what you’re touching

You’d never know it on your own, but most of the objects around us emit small amounts of electromagnetic noise that the naked human senses can’t detect. A modified wearable in development at Disney Research detects this electromagnetic current as it travels through our bodies unbeknownst to us, so that a simple smart watch will be able to register the objects you merely touch with your hands.

The human body is naturally conductive, so the electromagnetic noise that most electrical and electromechanical objects emit is propagated throughout the person touching it. Using a small, affordable radio-powered wearable, researchers at Disney and Carnegie Mellon University were able to develop a custom smart watch that detects the electromagnetic noise traveling through the body. Paired with their software definition system, the EM-Sense smart watch can identify what specific objects the wearer is touching at any given moment.

Examples of the EM-Sense’s detection capabilities are what really bring the technology to life. The main function allows the EM-Sense smart watch to simply identify objects, like a doorknob, a toothbrush, or a kitchen appliance. But that’s just the beginning. With a bit more development, EM-Sense’s creators think the technology could be used to automate frequent actions and augment important aspects of our daily routines.

In one demonstration, the smart watch identifies when the EM-Sense wearer has picked up a toothbrush, and starts a one-minute timer to ensure ideal dental hygiene. When you turn on your espresso machine EM-Sense might queue up your favorite news podcast, and when you turn the handle to your office door EM-Sense could read your emails, daily schedule, or business reminders.

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EM-Sense’s hardware is uniquely affordable for scaled production, but existing wearable devices would have to adapt considerably from their current state in order to incorporate EM-Sense functionality. Consumer-ready EM-Sense wearables would also necessitate a certain learning period, as the software registers the objects that the wearer regularly interacts with and uses. Learning curve aside, EM-Sense technology is an important approach to creating real, native functionality in smart watches, instead of just acting a smaller, more accessible smart phone screen.