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Disney has made tiny musical instruments that use sound to control your smartphone

Disney created Acoustruments — tiny 3D printed musical instruments which use sound in a novel, fun way to interact and control a smartphone or tablet. It sounds bizarre, but this ingenious system doesn’t require any power, electrical components, or complex machinery. Instead, it uses the speaker and microphone to translate sound generated by an Acoustrument into commands interpreted by the device. What’s more, Acoustruments re-introduce tangible, familiar control systems to the cold, clinical world of the touchscreen.

Now, Acoustruments may use sound, but it’s ultrasonic, so we won’t be able to hear it. Using a structure of pipes going from the speaker to the microphone, a continuous ultrasonic audio stream is sent from one to the other. Then just like a musical instrument, different elements are added to tune, alter, or break that audio stream, and it’s this which is used to provide control.

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The tiny instruments, which Disney calls Pluggables, are amazingly versatile, and already include valves, twisting knobs, rotary dials, squeezable pressure sensors, sliders, and even proximity and title sensors. What’s interesting is each one requires physical interaction — block a hole, squeeze an air tube, turn a valve — which has the potential to make interactive toys driven by a smartphone more physical, natural, and enjoyable.

Disney has come up with several different scenarios where an Acoustrument could be used with a smartphone. For example, a phone could be fitted inside a cute, plush toy. Because many of the control elements can be combined, hands could be squeezed, tummies tickled, and shoulders tapped — and the toy would react accordingly. Simple physical controls could be added to phone cases, without the need for any power, to turn the device into a simple alarm clock with operational snooze and activation buttons, or so gestures can activate certain features.

There is a downside to Disney’s Acoustruments, which engineers are working to solve. Because it covers the speakers and microphone, the phone can’t be used as a phone, and the audio output is significantly muted. Playing some, loud, additional sounds through the speaker can alter the ultrasonics, and confuse the control system.

Acoustruments aren’t a final product yet, but Disney’s research certainly suggests it would like to put them on sale in the future.