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MIT technology envisions devices that sense user needs

By Jason Norris
Published: June 3rd, 2009

As companies cram more functions into cell phones, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to make the devices omniscient — able to read users’ body language, if not their minds. A team at the MIT Media Lab is building Graspables, a technology based on the idea that people shouldn’t need to flip through menus or push multiple buttons to operate a gadget as a camera, phone, or gaming device. Instead, gadgets should be smart enough to know what the user expects, based on the physical cues that people automatically give when they pick up a device. V. Michael Bove, Jr., who directs the consumer electronics laboratory at the Media Lab, and a former student developed a system that is sensitive to the way people grasp an object, using a network of sensors that can detect the phone’s orientation. They began with a rectangular object, dubbed “the bar of soap,” that uses data from dozens of built-in sensors to flip automatically into different modes, depending on how it’s held. Responding to one grasp, it was a camera; to another, a remote control; another, a cell phone. For their next project, they developed a gaming device — a baseball fitted with sensors that can detect how the ball is gripped and the user’s throwing motion.

The researchers see the new interface as more than just a gimmick. Ultimately, they think devices should be able to read all the signals that people unconsciously send with their bodies — information that is now mostly ignored by consumer electronics devices. The idea has taken root beyond the MIT lab. “I think these kind of graspable interfaces are very much needed, and do provide a much more intuitive interface,” says Dinesh K. Pai, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia, who has developed a similar prototype that’s sensitive to an individual’s grasp. “A lot of our brain is wired up to manipulate physical objects with our hands, and a graspable, tangible interface like this makes a whole lot of sense.” Bove can’t disclose which companies have approached him about integrating his technology into their products, but he thinks Graspables could be useful in many unusual arenas, including smarter mobile devices, innovative video game controllers, and power tool safety locks. Golfers might even benefit from clubs that coach a player on the proper grip, and Bove believes sensing and pattern recognition can be incorporated into a wide array of small, inexpensive consumer products.

Go to: The Boston Globe

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