Breathe in, breathe out: New technique controls smartwatch using breath and skin

Dyllan Furness

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Picture this: You’re leaving the supermarket with your hands full of grocery bags when you suddenly get a call. Tilt your wrist to read your smartwatch. It’s Mom. You’re sure she’s calling to remind you to pick up milk. And you’re already lugging a gallon back to your car so you deny the call. But instead of dropping all your bags to do so, you simply lift your arm and shush the watch by blowing on it.

This is just one interactive feature developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology intended to give smartwatch wearers more control over their device. These apps are designed to enhance LG and Sony smartwatches, allowing users to answer phone calls using their breath, dial numbers by tapping their hand, and scroll through apps by running their fingers against the watch band.

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“We are all aware that the input on smartwatches can be improved,” Cheng Zhang, a Ph.D. student and lead researcher behind Georgia Tech’s WatchOut application, told Digital Trends. WatchOut lets wearers interact with their smartwatch through contact with the bevel and watchband.

“The touchscreen-based interactions are limited due to the small size of the screen,” Zhang said. “For instance, to open an app, the user usually has to slide through a long list on the tiny screen. WatchOut provides an additional set of inputs, which are more efficient. With WatchOut, the user can start an app by simply tapping on the watch case. Combining with the touchscreen-based input, WatchOut would provide a better interaction experience for smartwatch users.”

Two other Georgia Tech apps — Whoosh and TapSkin — are less intuitive than WatchOut but offer wonderfully creative ways to engage with smartwatches.

Whoosh lets users reject or answer calls by shushing or blowing at the device. The app even allows wearers to edit text messages or transfer information from their watch to their phone using various breathing patterns.

Breath-activated interfaces have previously been explored at Georgia Tech, but it took an aha moment for project lead Gabriel Reyes to explore the feature further.

“One day I watched my wife blow some fuzz off her phone while holding the device in one hand and our son in the other,” Reyes told Digital Trends. “I then thought we should revisit the idea of blowable interfaces for the mobile phone and primarily for smartwatches to enable one-handed input.”

TapSkin uses the smartwatches microphone and inertial sensors so users can input numbers into their smartwatch by tapping on the back of their hand.

Although Reyes is not currently pursuing commercialization of Whoosh but encourages manufacturers to use his work and inspiration. Zhang, on the other hand, said his team is working to commercialize the WatchOut technique and hopes it will be available as early as fall.