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Courtesy of Chris Harrison

With Skinput, the lines between user and computer continue to blur as the surface of the skin becomes a computer interface. Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Chris Harrison is developing the technology that still requires a large sensor on the upper arm to work.

New computer interface - Your skin

by Alex Baumgardner
April 13, 2010


Courtesy of Chris Harrison

Working with Microsoft Research, Ph.D. student Chris Harrison is developing ways that skin can be used as an interface to dial your phone and manage your iPod.

While mobile computing innovators see infinite possibilities on the glossy surfaces of touch screen phones, Chris Harrison sees only limitations.

“The funny thing about mobile devices today is that they are really constrained by size,” he said. Harrison, 25, is a Ph.D. whiz kid at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. Tired of the limits of a small screen, Harrison instead looked to his own body.

Enter Skinput. Harrison has been developing it to turn skin into a mobile device’s primary input surface. Imagine navigating your iPod during your morning run with a simple flick of the finger, without ever having to touch the screen.

“We bring our skin with us everywhere we go,” Harrison said. “We can strap the device on your arm, and then you can use your index finger to move forward a song, your ring finger to move back a song, maybe make a swivel in your palm to rotate songs.”

The technology, started while Harrison interned at Microsoft Research last summer, makes use of software that listens for different impacts on varying locations of the arm and hand, allowing them to become controls. To achieve this, a mobile device is attached to an armband that takes up most of the average bicep, but the motion could eventually be shrunk exponentially, Harrison said.

“This project is really right out of the lab. But I think the sensors could be about as small as a penny,” Harrison said.

Despite being in the prototype stage, tests reported a 95 percent accuracy rate in sensing a finger flick. However, that accuracy might be decreased depending on body type.

Harrison presented his findings yesterday in a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery's annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) in Atlanta, Ga. And despite the fact that he's in the first year of his work, the project is already gaining positive attention.

“I think it’s very cool,” said Beth Mynatt, professor of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and chair of CHI. “I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how people want to connect their body to technology.”

While it often takes technology such as this several years to hit the consumer market, Mynatt already sees potential applications in the gaming world, which is already blending the line between user and machine with products such as the Nintendo Wii and Guitar Hero.

“It’s already gotten quite physical in terms of use with the device, but you’re still pushing little buttons on that controller,” Mynatt said. “And one of the things I think you’ll see with this in gaming involves ones with musical performance. When you allow the human body to become part of that performance, it’s much more engaging than just pushing buttons.”

Skinput has its doubters. David Wolinsky, Chicago city editor for the Onion's A.V. Club section, said the device reminds him of a number of interactive technologies that never reached their promised potential. “One of the great jokes about technology is not asking why, but asking why not,” he said.

“It really brings to mind the Nintendo Power Glove,” Wolinsky said. “I think a lot of people were banking on that to be a big thing. I’m skeptical that something like this could catch on in a really meaningful way.

Mynatt said the applications might not be that grand, but still thinks Skinput is the direction computing is headed.

“Obviously you’re not going to write papers or type emails on your arm, but it works with the very basic commands you currently work with and fumble with when handling a device,” Mynatt said. “There’s going to be a decent segment of the population who think that’s going to be cool, sexy or convenient thing to do.”

And while Harrison and his team realize their product is far from completely developed, they’re encouraged by the initial positive feedback Skinput has received.

“It gets a lot of people excited, because it brings computing into a new way,” Harrison said. “People are realizing these other interfaces are diminishing their usability because we can’t make them smaller.”