The touchless phone: UW's smartphone of the future

SEATTLE - Researchers at the University of Washington could slowly change the way you interact with your cell phone, making your smartphone smarter.

"We think the interaction in the space around the phone is the next frontier," said Matt Reynolds, an associate professor in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Engineering department. "If you have a phone that's in your pocket, a phone that's in a handbag or something like that you'd like to be able to interact with it."

Their technology aims to do that. Engineers in Matt Reynolds and Shwetak Patel's labs have come up with a way to use low-power wireless sensing technology that allows you to train your phone by recognizing and responding to the hand gestures you make near the phone.

"When you've got the phone in the pocket and it's ringing and you want to stop it from ringing, you make a gesture near your pocket," Reynolds said.

Chen Zhao, project lead and a UW doctoral student in electrical engineering, said it goes beyond current technology that uses a camera, speaker or microphone to detect a gesture.

"We can do a gesture beyond the interactive areas that have existed," Zhao said. "So people can play games, they can control the cell phone while the cell phone is inside the jacket."

He said since the SideSwipe sensor is based only on low-power receivers and a pretty simple signal processing compared with video from a camera, it will have a minimal impact on battery life.

The research will likely one day have practical, everyday use especially considering cell phones are such a huge market.

"Over 80 percent of the U.S. population already has a smartphone," Reynolds explained.

It could be years though before it winds up on your phone. The technology is intellectual property owned by the university, which could eventually license it.

"There's been a lot of other technologies UW has been involved in," Reynolds said. "UW owns a patent which is key to the BlueTooth system for example."


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