Hopped-up smartwatches gain new powers

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A ViBand-equipped smartwatch communicates with a vibro-tagged glue gun, using bio-acoustic signals(Credit: Carnegie Mellon University)

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While we've already seen a number of interesting functions that can be performed by specially-designed prototype smartwatches, it's hard to say how many of those innovations will ever make their way into production. Now, however, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed the ViBand system, which allows existing watches to recognize gestures, and identify objects held in the user's hand.

The accelerometer in most smartwatches is set to take measurements about 100 times a second, which is sufficient for tasks such as detecting when the watch is being moved. As the Carnegie Mellon team discovered, though, using a software update to boost that sampling rate to 4,000 times a second lets the accelerometer act as a vibrational microphone. This means that it can detect sounds that travel through the user's body as vibrations, or "bio-acoustic signals."

By analyzing the unique characteristics of those signals, the watch is thus able to differentiate between actions such as finger flicks, scratching motions, or finger taps on the forearm, palm of the hand, or back of the hand. Each action can thus be used to perform a certain task, such as scrolling through menus, making selections, or even controlling connected appliances such as lamps or TVs.

Additionally, the accelerometer is also able to recognize the distinct bio-acoustic signals produced by hand-held powered tools including drills, food mixers and electric toothbrushes. While this feature might initially just seem to be a clever parlour trick, it does have practical applications.

Recipes displayed on mobile device screens, for instance, could let users know when they've blended the ingredients for long enough. The technology can even identify notes played on an acoustic guitar, so it could serve to guide users through the tuning of their instruments.

Of course, not everything that users touch is going to be vibrating – at least, not in its regular form. With that in mind, the team created buzzing "vibro-tags" that can be integrated into such items. If the name sign on someone's office door was equipped with a vibro-tag, for instance, a ViBand user touching that sign would instantly receive that person's contact information on their watch's screen. Alternately, a vibro-tagged glue gun could inform users of its present glue temperature.

For more examples of possible uses of the ViBand system, check out the following video.

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