As the engineers who developed Ford's kick-activated tailgate realized a few years ago, people tend to use their feet to perform tasks when their hands are full. Now, a team of researchers at the MIT Media Lab team has applied the same sort of thinking to the control of electronic devices. Their prototype KickSoul system lets users wirelessly control smartphones, computers and appliances using foot movements.

Led by second-year master's student Xavier Benavides, the team started with a set of regular cushioning insoles, then sewed some electronic components into the middle of one. These electronics included an Arduino micro-computer, a Bluetooth module, and a 6-axis IMU (an inertial measurement unit, which consists of an accelerometer and a gyroscope).

The IMU registers all foot movements, and relays them to the Arduino. Using a custom algorithm, it is in turn able to pick out two deliberate foot movements amongst all the others: a forward "pushing away" gesture, and a backward "drawing in" gesture. When either of these are detected, the Bluetooth is used to notify an app on the wearer's smartphone.

Depending on the specific setup, this will either affect the operation of the phone itself, or the app will seek out the closest compatible Bluetooth-controllable device and remotely operate it.

Examples of possible applications include the ability to zoom in or out on computer screens by moving the foot forward or back, turning on lights when the user's hands are full with grocery bags, accessing functions on a large-screen phone while holding it in just one hand, or accepting/rejecting calls on a phone that's sitting out of reach.

There's currently no word on possible commercialization of the technology, although Benavide's team did recently present a paper on KickSoul at the 28th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software & Technology, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The system is demonstrated in the following video.