Hands-off! Gesture-based smartphone control is coming

New technology may soon allow you to control your phone without touching or talking to it

Picture of a bubble seeming to levitate above a person's handImage credit: flickr/Axel Naud (license)
Hands-off control of your phone may soon be an alternative to hands-free control

We all spend a good portion of our time these days touching, tapping and swiping our smartphone screens but sometimes when you need to access your phone your hands aren’t free to do so. The obvious example is when you’re driving but there are other times too, like if you’re preparing food or washing dishes and the phone rings. Voice commands can help, but can also be somewhat limited. Luckily, researchers at the University of Washington may have a new solution: controlling your phone with hand gestures.

SideSwipe is an effort led by UW professors Shwetak Patel and Matthew Reynolds to enable control of a smartphone with nearby hand gestures without the need for a custom transmitter or external signal source or even a camera. They’ve developed a method that detects distortions in the phone’s own wireless GSM signals created by hand gestures. An algorithm they’ve created then interprets the gesture and performs a predefined action.

More specifically, they’ve created a prototype which consists of a circuit board with four small receiving antennas that connects to the back of a phone. When a hand moves near the phone, for example pointing at it or hovering over it, skin, muscles and bones either absorb or reflect the signal. Absorption reduces the signal intensity while reflection generates a Doppler effect. SideSwipe recognizes particular gestures based on this modulation in the signal.

Using this system, you could, in theory, scroll through a recipe just by swiping your hand over the screen. Also, the system doesn’t require being able to see the display. This means that nearby gestures could work even if the phone is in your pocket or in a purse. So, for example, if your phone starts to ring in your pocket during a meeting, you could quickly silence it by swiping your hand near your pocket.

Using a modified Samsung Nexus S, the researchers ran a 10-person study of SideSwipe’s effectiveness. Each participant performed 14 different hand gestures, based on taps, hovers and swipes, about 30cm away from the phone. SideSwipe proved quite effective, achieving an 87% accuracy rate. These basic gestures were considered simple building blocks that could be combined to create a more complicated vocabulary.

SideSwipe's creators told UW Today that they've applied for patents on the technology, and that it could be implemented on existing phones with little modification. They also said it would, in theory, have little impact on battery life since it’s based on low powered receivers and simple signal processing. Finally, though it depends on GSM signals, there would be no privacy concerns since it just needs to detect changes in the amplitude of the signal; it wouldn’t need or have access to the contents of the transmission.

Pretty neat. If they could integrate the circuit board and antennas into a not-bulky case, I could see using SideSwipe on my own phone. It seems like I’m constantly drying my hands or wiping some gunk off of them before touching my phone so this would help. In addition to the use cases described, I could see this sort of technology also being useful to those with disabilities that affect motor control. We’ll see if it comes to market and catches on.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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