The future of technology has always been driven by two simple fundamentals: make it faster, and make it smaller. If Chris Harrison and Microsoft’s newest project, Skinput, takes off, it may just take care of the smaller part for good.
The idea is to do away with physical keyboards altogether and replace them with the user’s own body. A projection system will display the keypad on your arm, then sensors would read the input based on which finger you used, and where it struck. To answer an incoming phone call, you could snap your fingers and a Bluetooth earpiece could take the call. To open a folder, you could touch your pinky to your thumb. A series of sign-language-like controls would be customizable, allowing the user to operate a computerized device without a physical unit.
For the more complex operations that require some form of input, a pico camera would project the menus, folder and keyboards onto the users skin. You could type an e-mail on your forearm, or dial a number on the palm of your hand.
“A technology that appropriates the human body for acoustic transmission, allowing the skin to be used as an input surface. In particular, we resolve the location of finger taps on the arm and hand by analyzing mechanical vibrations that propagate through the body,” the Skinput project website states, “We collect these signals using a novel array of sensors worn as an armband. This approach provides an always available, naturally portable, and on-body finger input system.”
The prototype is an armband that users wear. It features an elbow brace with sensors that can register the movement caused by each finger, and react to the movements. It then identifies the acoustic resonance of each movement and stores it. A camera then projects the more complex menus onto the other forearm, and the user taps on the display, which vibrates to the sensors to accept the command. The system takes a few moments to distinguish the sound, and vibrations of the individual user, and then it is ready to go.
Harrison, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University and a former Microsoft research intern, has been collaborating with Microsoft to produce a working prototype. Early results show a 95 percent accuracy rate using five buttons, but the goal is to allow the use of a full keyboard. Promising results for a project just eight months old, but the research team believes that a commercially viable model could be anywhere from two to seven years away.
Without a need for a view screen, mobile devices would be free to shrink down further than has ever been considered pragmatically possible. An iPhone- inarguably a top-of-the-line piece of technology – could suddenly be too bulky, while a unit the size of a matchbook could wirelessly sit in the users pocket and work with the skinput system.
Beyond just applications for mobile devices, the skinput system proves the viability of the human body as a sensor. A decade or so from now, users might snap their fingers to unlock the door to their house, or rub their hands together to turn on the TV. The technology is still in the early days, but the possibilities are remarkable.