Ultrasound offers gesture control.

The smartphone you control by gestures

Ultrasound technology that enables mobiles and tablets to be controlled by gesture could go into production as early as next year.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs is in talks with Asian handset manufacturers to get the chip embedded in devices.

The technology works via an ultrasound chip that uses sound waves to interpret hand movements.

The move towards gesture control has gathered pace and there are now many such products on the market.

Big gestures

What sets Elliptic’s gesture-control system apart from others is its wide field of use, up to a metre away from the phone. It means it can identify mid-air gestures accurately.

Because it uses sound rather than sight, the sensor can recognise gestures from a 180-degree field. It also consumes less power and works in the dark.

By contrast Samsung’s Galaxy S4 uses an infrared sensor that can only interpret hand movements within a very small zone.

“The user needs to learn the exact spot to gesture to instead of having a large interactive space around the device,” said Erik Forsstrom, the user interface designer for Elliptic Labs.

The ultrasound system in action

Allowing users more freedom in how they gesture is vital if such products are to become mainstream, he thinks.

“With a small screen such as a phone or a tablet, the normal body language is not that precise. You need a large zone in which to gesture.”

If consumers can quickly see the effects their gestures have on screen, he thinks, “it is quite likely that this is the next step within mobile”.

The technology was recently shown off at Japanese tech show Ceatec.

In the demonstration, an Android smartphone was housed in a case containing the ultrasound transmitters.

But Elliptic Labs said it had formed partnerships with a number of Asian handset manufacturers who are looking at building the ultrasound chip into devices, as early as next year.

Mass market

“Start Quote

It is ideal if you have dirty or sweaty hands”

Ben Wood CCS Insight

Increasingly firms are experimenting with gesture control.

PrimeSense, the company that developed gesture control for Microsoft’s Kinect console, has also made strides towards bringing the technology to mobile.

By shrinking down the sensor used in the Kinect, the firm showed it working with a Nexus 10 at a Google developers‘ conference in May.

Meanwhile Disney is testing technology that allows users to “feel” the texture of objects on a flat touchscreen.

The technique involves sending tiny vibrations through the display that let people “feel” the shallow bumps, ridges and edges of an object.

Ben Wood, analyst with research firm CCS Insight thinks such devices could be ready for the mass market.

“Apple’s success has made gestures a part of everyday life. Now consumers understand they can manipulate a screen with a gesture or a swipe everyone is racing to find innovative ways to exploit this behaviour.

“Ultrasonic is particularly interesting as you don’t need to touch the screen which can be an almost magical experience.

“It is ideal if you have dirty or sweaty hands. A common example people use is flicking through a recipe when cooking. Other examples include transitioning through a slideshow of photos or flicking through music tracks or turning the page on an ebook,” he said.

“The big challenge that remains is how you make users aware of the capability.”

Lightning powers Frankenstein phone.

Scientists use lightning bolt to charge mobile phone


Mobile phone receiving a lightning strike
The lightning bolt was recreated in the lab

Some 200 years after Mary Shelley used lightning to breathe life into Frankenstein’s monster, scientists have copied her idea to power a phone.

The proof-of-concept experiment was conducted at the University of Southampton in collaboration with Nokia.

The mobile firm warned users “not to try this at home”.

Harnessing nature in this way could provide power sources where electricity is in short supply, said experts.

Huge step

Using a transformer, the team recreated a lightning bolt in the lab by passing 200,000 volts across a 30cm (12in) air gap.

“We were amazed to see that the Nokia circuitry somehow stabilised the noisy signal, allowing the battery to be charged,” said Neil Palmer, from the University of Southampton’s high voltage laboratory.

Southampton University lab The proof-of-concept experiment is a step towards harnessing the energy from lightning

“This discovery proves devices can be charged with a current that passes through the air, and is a huge step towards understanding a natural power like lightning and harnessing its energy.”

Lightning is a discharge of static electricity that occurs when there is an imbalance in the electrical charge between a cloud and the earth’s surface.

On average three people die in the UK each year from lightning strikes, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa).

“We obviously aren’t recommending people try this experiment at home, but we are always looking to disrupt and push the boundaries of technology,” said Chris Weber, executive vice-president for sales at Nokia.

Finding new ways to charge mobile phones and extend battery life is one of the number one priorities for the mobile industry.

“It’s certainly a striking idea,” said Ben Wood, of analyst firm CCS Insight.

“Nokia has been among the forerunners of device-charging technology for some time. It’s also very committed to caring for the environment. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the company’s involved in what might appear to be a wacky idea.”

He thinks the concept might be useful in areas without reliable electricity.

“If you live in a remote village in India you might welcome the possibility of a communal device that charges phones.”