Researchers from Columbia University and Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, have come up with an ingenious method of smartphone control. It lets you add dials and switches to a handset, without the need for any connecting wires or Bluetooth pairing.

The secret is an accompanying app that taps into the phone's accelerometer or inertial measurement unit (IMU). By sensing small and sudden movements in the phone's position in space as you push a button or turn a dial, the system can enable a variety of mechanical inputs.

If you're wondering how it works, try pushing your phone's volume up or volume down buttons: it's just about impossible to do without causing some slight movement of the phone itself.

The little mechanical inputs the researchers have developed are called vidgets, and they can be added as modules on a case attached to the back of the phone. They don't add much bulk, they don't cost much, and they don't need their own power source.

You might, for example, add a dial that lets you zoom into a map or a photo when you only have one hand free to operate the phone. Or, you could control a game with a push button on the side of the device so you don't have to cover the screen with your fingers.

"Physical widgets give us a reassuring feeling of control, a touching sense of the phone's orientation, and are probably more efficient for applications such as gaming," write the researchers in their paper. "Physical widgets also often complement software widgets, in cases where it is just inconvenient for the user to touch the screen."

These vidgets might also come in handy when you're wearing gloves in cold weather, for example, and because they're modular, you can quickly reconfigure them – to suit left or right handers, perhaps.

The system isn't ready for the masses yet, more work needs to be done to improve the accuracy of the motion detection, particularly when the phone is already vibrating (such as on a car journey).

But further down the line it's not difficult to imagine these vidgets adding all kinds of cool mechanical switch options to a phone, just by attaching a case. And considering Snap's involvement, it's possible that such a case could appear as one of the hardware devices the company makes to accompany Snapchat.

The video below shows some of the vidgets in action. The work is being presented at the 2019 Siggraph conference that starts on July 28.

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