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MIT’s Nail-Mounted Wireless Trackpad Gives Us A Glimpse Of Practical Future Wearable Technology

The bright minds at the MIT Media Lab are working on a miniature nail-mounted wireless track pad. Talk about the ultimate wearable device! By scratching with your finger, you can “unobtrusively” operate digital devices — such as the new Apple Watch — at meetings without your boss being all the wiser. [I guess the commercial version should also allow you to tap a text message to your friend without anyone noticing.] A prototype of the device, called NailO, will be presented next week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction conference in Seoul, South Korea.

The track pad uses the same kind of sensing on the iPhone’s touch screen, capacitive sensing, which enables a thin, nonactive layer to be sandwiched between the user’s finger and the underlying sensors. According to one of the paper’s lead author, Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, the commercial version of the device (which was inspired by the colorful stickers that some women apply to their nails) would have a detachable membrane on its surface so that users can coordinate it with their outfits. To guard against inadvertent activation and deactivation, the device requires that your finger contacts the surface for about two to three seconds before it activates or deactivates.

For the technology to work in such a small package, the researchers had to pack the capacitive sensors, a half a millimeter thick battery, and three separate chips — a microcontroller, a Bluetooth radio chip, and a capacitive-sensing chip — into a space no larger than a thumbnail. The most challenging part (as Apple found out the hard way with the iPhone) was to find a way to “put the antenna far enough away from the chips so that it doesn’t interfere with them.

One practical application that we believe will certainly become very popular is scrolling on a tablet while both hands are occupied with another task, e.g. preparing a dish while following the instructions on the screen. Hint to researchers: need to make the device waterproof also.

The coworker sitting besides you who seems to be scratching her long, beautifully painted fingernails? She’s actually reading and scrolling through her text messages.

And for us, photogs, remote-controlled shots are literally just a fingertip away.

And, while the prototype shows only a thumbnail-mounted trackpad, there is no reason why super users would not have all ten finger nails equipped with track pads connected to different devices. Add a gyroscope, GPS and location sensors — and, instead of scratching the track pad, you could be swiping with your hands and/or fingers in the air to scroll screens, play a virtual orchestra, a virtual guitar, etc. It’s such a small step… but the future practical applications using this technology are endless.

Read more about the NailO at: MIT News