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Thumbnail turns into miniature wireless track pad

08 Jun 2015

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A team of researchers at the MIT Media Laboratory are creating an innovative wearable device that turns the user's thumbnail into a miniature wireless track pad. According to them, the technology could let users control wireless devices when their hands are full, answering the phone while cooking, for instance.

It could also augment other interfaces, allowing someone texting on a cellphone, say, to toggle between symbol sets without interrupting his or her typing. Finally, it could enable subtle communication in circumstances that require it, such as sending a quick text to a child while attending an important meeting.

The researchers describe a prototype of the device, called NailO, in a paper they're presenting next week at the Association for Computing Machinery's Computer-Human Interaction conference in Seoul, South Korea.

NailO allows for swipe gestures

NailO allows for swipe gestures. Courtesy of MIT Media Lab

According to Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, an MIT graduate student in media arts and sciences and one of the new paper's lead authors, the device was inspired by the colourful stickers that some women apply to their nails. "It's a cosmetic product, popular in Asian countries," said Kao, who is from Taiwan. "When I came here, I was looking for them, but I couldn't find them, so I'd have my family mail them to me."

NailO flexible PCB prototype

The NailO flexible PCB prototype. Courtesy of MIT Media Lab

Indeed, the researchers envision that a commercial version of their device would have a detachable membrane on its surface, so that users could coordinate surface patterns with their outfits. To that end, they used capacitive sensing, the same kind of sensing the iPhone's touch screen relies on, to register touch, since it can tolerate a thin, nonactive layer between the user's finger and the underlying sensors.

Designed in the MIT Media Lab, NailO is a thumbnail-mounted wireless track pad that controls digital devices.

As the site for a wearable input device, however, the thumbnail has other advantages: It's a hard surface with no nerve endings, so a device affixed to it wouldn't impair movement or cause discomfort. And it's easily accessed by the other fingers, even when the user is holding something in his or her hand.

Example scenario of NailO

An example scenario of NailO, where it's being used as remote controller for one-handed input, such as scrolling recipes online while cooking. Courtesy of MIT Media Lab

"It's very unobtrusive," Kao explained. "When I put this on, it becomes part of my body. I have the power to take it off, so it still gives you control over it. But it allows this very close connection to your body."

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