Roll Up Your Sleeve, Watch a Video with This Smart Watch Forearm Projector

We’re all slowly getting used to the idea of wearable technology, fabulous flops like the creepy Google Glass notwithstanding. But the big problem with tiny tech is in finding the real estate for user interfaces. Sure, we can make it tiny, but human fingers aren’t getting any smaller, and eyeballs can only resolve so much fine detail.

So how do we make wearables more usable? According to Carnegie-Mellon researcher [Chris Harrison], one way is to turn the wearer into the display and the input device (PDF link). More specifically, his LumiWatch projects a touch-responsive display onto the forearm of the wearer. The video below is pretty slick with some obvious CGI “artist’s rendition” displays up front. But even the somewhat limited displays shown later in the video are pretty impressive. The watch can claim up to 40-cm² of the user’s forearm for display, even at the shallow projection angle offered by a watch bezel only slightly above the arm — quite a feat given the irregular surface of the skin. It accomplishes this with a “pico-projector” consisting of red, blue, and green lasers and a pair of MEMS mirrors. The projector can adjust the linearity and brightness of the display to provide a consistent image across the uneven surface. An array of 10 time-of-flight sensors takes care of watching the display area for touch input gestures. It’s a fascinating project with a lot of potential, but we wonder how the variability of the human body might confound the display. Not to mention the need for short sleeves year round.

Need some basics on the micro-electrical mechanic systems (MEMS) behind the pico-projector in this watch? We’ve got a great primer on these microscopic machines.

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Inventing The Digital Watch Again And Again And…

In the 1950s, artwork of what the future would look like included flying cars and streamlined buildings reaching for the sky. In the 60s we were heading for the Moon. When digital watches came along in the 70s, it seemed like a natural step away from rotating mechanical hands to space age, electrically written digits in futuristic script.

But little did we know that digital watches had existed before and that our interest in digital watches would fade only to be reborn in the age of smartphones.

Mechanical Digital Watches

Cortébert jump-hour wristwatch by Wallstonekraft CC-BY-SA 3.0
Cortébert jump-hour wristwatch.
Image by Wallstonekraft CC-BY-SA 3.0

In 1883, Austrian inventor Josef Pallweber patented his idea for a jumping hour mechanism. At precisely the change of the hour, a dial containing the digits from 1 to 12 rapidly rotates to display the next hour. It does so suddenly and without any bounce, hence the term “jump hour”. He licensed the mechanism to a number of watchmakers who used it in their pocket watches. In the 1920s it appeared in wristwatches as well. The minute was indicated either by a regular minute hand or a dial with digits on it visible through a window as shown here in a wristwatch by Swiss watchmaker, Cortébert.

The jump hour became popular worldwide but was manufactured only for a short period of time due to the complexity of its production. It’s still manufactured today but for very expensive watches, sometimes with a limited edition run.

The modern digital watch, however, started from an unlikely source, the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Make a Smart(ish) Watch From An Old Cell Phone

Looking for a fun junk box hack? Have one of those old Nokia phones that (in contrast to your current smartphone) just won’t give up the ghost? Tinkernut has a nice hack for you: making a smart watch from an old cell phone. Specifically, this project details how to make a smart watch that displays time, date, incoming calls and texts from a Nokia 1100 cell phone display and a few other bits.

This 3-video series covers how to extract the display, connect it to an Arduino and conecting that to an Android phone over Bluetooth. We’ve seen a few similar smart(ish) watch builds, but this one covers the whole process well, including building the Android app in the MIT AppInventor. Sure, the final result is not as polished as an Apple Watch, but it’s a lot cheaper and easier to hack…

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Smart Sweatbands

If you’ve ever known anyone who has to monitor their blood glucose level, you know it is annoying to have to prick your finger with a lancet to draw blood for each measurement. A new sweatband that incorporates flexible electronics can measure glucose–as well as sodium, potassium, and lactate–from your sweat, without a painful pin prick.

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Impedance Tomography is the new X-Ray Machine

Seeing what’s going on inside a human body is pretty difficult. Unless you’re Superman and you have X-ray vision, you’ll need a large, expensive piece of medical equipment. And even then, X-rays are harmful part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Rather than using a large machine or questionable Kryptonian ionizing radiation vision, there’s another option now: electrical impedance tomography.

[Chris Harrison] and the rest of a research team at Carnegie Mellon University have come up with a way to use electrical excitation to view internal impedance cross-sections of an arm. While this doesn’t have the resolution of an X-ray or CT, there’s still a large amount of information that can be gathered from using this method. Different structures in the body, like bone, will have a different impedance than muscle or other tissues. Even flexed muscle changes its impedance from its resting state, and the team have used their sensor as proof-of-concept for hand gesture recognition.

This device is small, low power, and low-cost, and we could easily see it being the “next thing” in smart watch features. Gesture recognition at this level would open up a whole world of possibilities, especially if you don’t have to rely on any non-wearable hardware like ultrasound or LIDAR.

Disney’s Designing a Smart Watch That Knows What You’re Touching

Did you know Disney actually has a huge R&D subsidiary? It’s called Walt Disney Imagineering, and they’ve come up with some pretty interesting technology. They’re currently working on a smart watch interface called EM-Sense that uses an electromagnetic signal to detect and learn what the user is interacting with.

Basic machine learning allows the watch to learn what different devices “feel” like on an electromagnetic scale. It’s capable of detecting things you would expect, like appliances, power tools, and even electronic devices — but it’s apparently sophisticated enough to tell when you’re touching a door handle (and which one) depending on the structure and EM feedback!

They better explain the technology in the follow video, and demonstrate a use case for it where the smart watch can lead you through activities while giving you tutorials on skills you may need. Sounds like the beginning of a real-life PipBoy!

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Mechanical Watch Hacker Gets an Apple Watch

Mechanical watch enthusiasts see the Apple watch as a threat to the traditional gear train. It does not tick, requires frequent re-charging, and it’s certainly not the most attractive of watches. But it can direct you to the local coffee shop, allow you to communicate with friends anywhere in the world, get you onto an airplane after the most awkward of arm gestures, and keep you apprised of the latest NCAA basketball scores. Is the advent of the smart watch the end to the mechanical watch?
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