Microsoft Wants You to Control Your Phone by Touching Yourself

Keyboards and mice are so '99. The interface of the future will be your own body.

Kinect's "using your body as a controller" feature was one of technology’s big hits last year—not only have users had fun dancing up a storm and racing cars with official Kinect games, but a whole community has emerged to dream up new and inventive ways of hacking the system that tracks 20 joints in your body.

But if you think that's Microsoft's last foray into unconventional means of controlling digital devices, think again. The Seattle giant has a whole team of smarty-pants researchers tasked with imagining new and freaky ways we might one day turn on our mp3 players, dial phones, and, who knows, maybe even power up a microwave for a little burrito action.

One of the projects they’re working on is "Skinput," a system that would allow you to control devices simply by hitting specific points on your arm. Not a device on your arm. Just your arm itself.

Here’s one way you might use it: You’re on your usual early-morning jog. Your mp3 player is set to "shuffle." A song comes up that you’ve heard one too many times. Instead of having to stop your run, take out your player, and fumble with the buttons or spin wheel to skip to the next song, you just hit your arm about midway up and keep on cruising.

The idea behind Skinput is that mechanical vibrations travel differently through your bodydepending on where they originate. Or, as the robotic voice in the video below explains: "Variations in bone density, size and mass, as well as filtering effects from soft tissues and joints, mean different locations are acoustically distinct." The Skinput team is developing software that would listen for the vibrations—through, for example, an armband on your bicep—and then turn them into instructions for a particular device.

Another Microsoft team is looking not at mechanical vibrations but instead at the electric signals your muscles create when they contract. One of the researchers on that project, Scott Saponas, tells Fast Company about a use case drawn from his own experience. In his spare time, Saponas takes pottery classes. It’s not unusual for someone to call him while his hands are covered in clay. What if instead of racing to clean your hands before your caller hangs up—or, worse, missing a call altogether—you could simply answer your phone by touching your thumb and forefinger together, for example?

The researchers are looking into how an armband with sensors on it, similarly affixed to your arm, could pick up the electric signals given off by different gestures and use that as a control mechanism. In the video below, Saponas shows how he hacked Guitar Hero to take input from the muscles he uses to strum an imaginary guitar.

Both of these projects are still in the research phase, and it would be at least five years before either could conceivably make it to the marketplace. And there's no guarantee that either actually will make it to market, says Saponas. But something will. Keyboards and mice work just fine when the only place you're doing computing is at your desk. But as we increasingly use digital devices in our everyday lives, especially in situations when our hands are otherwise occupied, like at the gym, in the grocery store, or while driving, it’s certain that we will be using interfaces like these, or similar ones, not too far down the line.

[Image: Microsoft]

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E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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14 Comments

  • Xillra

    "billy, why do you keep slapping your arm?" .......I really hope this doesn't turn into a technology that requires physically hurting yourself for it to work.

  • rohini bhan

    i've also seen the videos of sir Pranav Mistry...........he has also shown the same thing.....then tell me is it smting like modifications made in pranav mistry's technos..

  • Scott Clark

    So? if your hands are occupied what do you dial with? How do you tell your phone you want to make a call? This is basically solving a problem that doesn't exist. How many other devices do I need to carry around so that I don't have to touch my phone? My car already connects with my phone via Bluetooth and I can control it from the steering wheel. Does it really need to get more complicated?

  • askthinkfeeldo

    Special Purpose BioAcoustic Sensing Array? What exactly is the 'special' purpose? Oh, and where's the light source for the image projection coming from? Skull Embedded Nanoprojector? A set of OLED optical glasses? Where exactly is MS going now? Started as a software company, then tried myriad of other avenues and now focusing on tactile control? People have got to ask themselves where is this technology heading? If this is only the beginning, then where does MS want this technology to be in 5-10 years time?
    What's next? Nanocamera's in the foreheads of animals at the local zoo? Just click on your phone app and see life from a monkey's perspective? What's worse is that these 'engineers' design it so we'll all have to conform to their way of operating/ navigating the data - and this has always been one of MS's biggest mistakes - forgetting the whole idea and value of personalization.

  • Hans Eisenman

    Should be called Special Purpose Already Stolen Material - or S.P.A.S.M.

  • askthinkfeeldo

    Special Purpose BioAcoustic Sensing Array? What exactly is the 'special' purpose? Oh, and where's the light source for the image projection coming from? Skull Embedded Nanoprojector? A set of OLED optical glasses? Where exactly is MS going now? Started as a software company, then tried myriad of other avenues and now focusing on tactile control? People have got to ask themselves where is this technology heading? If this is only the beginning, then where does MS want this technology to be in 5-10 years time?
    What's next? Nanocamera's in the foreheads of animals at the local zoo? Just click on your phone app and see life from a moneky's perspective? What's worse is that these 'engineers' design it so we'll all have to conform to their way of operating/ navigating the data - and this has always been one of MS's biggest mistakes - forgetting the whole idea and value of personalization.

  • Emily G

    Even more freaky: the idea that we can't even be without technology long enough to immerse ourselves in a pottery class. This is why Sherry Turkle wrote Alone Together.

  • James E

    This would be perfect for soldiers on the battlefield. For communications and as a health monitoring system that detects trauma impacts.

  • nathan goldberg

    Are you joking? The whole idea as it stands is rubbish. Why not just use a pad with lots of buttons to control stuff. Thought did occur to me though, whet do you touch when you want to watch porn?

  • Andy Stephens

    Amazing and scary. I thought of this concept years ago but putting it into practice.... Genius!