This 3D Gesture-Detecting Chip Could Actually Make Smartwatches Useful

If idea of fiddling around with a tiny, wrist-mounted touchscreen is enough to make you want to give up on smartwatches before they even really arrive, then whoa. This 3D gesture-recognition might actually make these things useful.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Davis are developing a tiny chip which uses ultrasound to detect gestures in three dimensions; the idea is to embed it in wearable technology. Called Chirp, the technology is based around a small and simple ultrasound chip which emits sound waves to work out how you're moving, reports Technology Review.

A small array of ultrasound transducers spews out small pulses of sound in a hemisphere. They then bounce off nearby objects and are reflected back to the chip. Measuring the time lag between the sent pulse and the received echo allows the device to detect hand gestures, in 3D, within about a 1 meter radius.

What's useful about ultrasound in this scenario is that's unaffected by light, which means it can be used in bright sun or dark rooms—ideal for something you're going to be using in all kinds of conditions. Rachel Metz, from Technology Review, has tried out a prototype, and her reaction is positive:

Przybyla showed me a demo of Chirp at the lab he works out of at UC Berkeley, where the chips that comprise it were hooked up to a computer, allowing me to control a computer-animated plane's flight path on a monitor by moving my hand in front of the display... It was noticeably easier to control on my first try than some other kinds of gesture-recognition technologies I've tried, and didn't seem to require any calibration to sense most of my movements accurately.

The technology is currently being spun out from the research into an actual company, and the hope is that it'll soon find its way into consumer hardware. That's neat, as is the fact that the team believes it should be able to improve the resolution so that it can track finger gestures, too. Who needs a tiny touchscreen anyway? [Technology Review]