Future smartwatches could be operated by using your wrist as a joystick

Luke Dormehl
Digital Trends
Future smartwatches could be operated by using your wrist as a joystick
WristWhirl is a smart user interface which lets smartwatch wearers perform common touchscreen gestures by using their watch-wearing wrist as a joystick. One day, all smartwatches could work like this.

Whether it’s the keyboard-free Multi-Touch technology that debuted with the original iPhone, or the WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointer) interface honed at legendary Silicon Valley research center Xerox PARC, there are some computer interfaces and input devices which fit their medium perfectly.

Simply put, when you see them, you can’t imagine things working in any other way.

The smartwatch has not yet had that moment.

At least, that is the perspective of a team of researchers at Dartmouth College. To fix what they view as the flawed way in which users are currently expected to interact with smartwatches, they created a prototype interface called WristWhirl — which allows wearers to perform common touchscreen gestures by using their watch-wearing wrist as a joystick.

“The motivation behind the project was our belief that people shouldn’t have to use two hands to work a smartwatch,” Xing-Dong Yang, assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth, told Digital Trends. “If it’s a device that’s meant to be used on-the-fly, there may be situations where you don’t have both hands available — such as when you’re carrying a shopping bag, for instance. We wanted a solution that lets a person use just one hand to perform gestural input.”

Related: The best smartwatches you can buy

The WristWhirl prototype uses inputs like asking users to make gestures similar to those that would be used to flick a touch screen, along with free-form shapes, like tracing a triangle in the air. To pick up the different gestures, the WristWhirl uses 12 infrared proximity sensors, alongside a Piezo vibration sensor in the watch strap, connected to an Arduino Due board.

The researchers found that the device was able to recognize the gestures made by users with an impressive 93.8 percent accuracy.

They tested various different input scenarios, such as a game of Tetris played with wrist wipes and extensions, and a map app which can be panned and zoomed based on where the watch is held in relation to a person’s body.

At present, the work is just an experiment — but it is the kind of research that could certainly be used by a smartwatch maker looking to break free from the current way we think about watch interfaces.

“The same thing happens whenever we switch to a new category of device: we make the mistake of trying to copy and paste existing user interfaces, and discover that it doesn’t work well,” Yang said. “If you look at the early days of PDAs, the user interface looked exactly like the Microsoft Windows operating system you’d find on a PC. They had tiny icons you needed a magnifying glass to see. Smart watches are the same. We just need to find the right interface for the device.”

Whether WristWhirl turns out to be that interface or not, it i certainly great that the right questions are being asked. If this turns out to be the way your future Apple Watch works, well, you read it here first!