The first time I tried out a smart watch with a touch screen, I quickly went from feeling excited to feeling clumsy. Tapping or swiping the small display on my wrist often failed to yield the response I expected. It might have been the quality of the screen, but it may have also been simply that the screen was too small and my fingers too big.
Touch screens have largely obliterated clickable keyboards and scrolling buttons or wheels on smartphones in favor of tapping, swiping, pinching, and flicking. Yet when it comes to smaller gadgets like smart watches, they’re not always the best way to access information, and other methods like voice recognition still aren’t that reliable either.
A project at Carnegie Mellon University suggests a better way to control these new gadgets: allowing users to physically tilt, click, and twist the watch’s bezel, the area around the screen. This could make it much easier to do things like set up appointments, play music, or navigate a map on the tiny display.
“It’s not that these watches aren’t fast enough or even have enough battery life—it’s that we can’t get the input and output good enough,” says Chris Harrison, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, who worked on the project with several colleagues.
The group built a prototype device and presented a paper detailing it at the recent ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto.
Harrison says the researchers tried to adhere to certain rules when making the prototype: it shouldn’t feel cramped to use, and users shouldn’t have to lift their fingers from the screen while using it. A 1.5-inch display sits in front of an ARM processor, and two Hall-effect displacement sensors measure movements of the screen along two different axes. This allows for clicks, tilts, pans, and twists. The watch is connected to a laptop running software that processes the user’s interactions and runs an app that is shown on the watch face.
A video posted by the group (see below) shows a wearer interacting with a number of demo apps on the watch: clicking and twisting to set an alarm; tilting to pan across a map and twisting to zoom in; twisting and clicking to control the video game Doom, which researchers modified to run on the device.
The prototype looks bulky, and even if the technology were shrunk down, adding it to a smart watch would be likely to increase the gadget’s overall size and put more strain on its battery. Mechanical parts can also make for headaches in mobile devices, as they can gather dust, get wet, and break.
To address some of these issues, Harrison says, a commercial smart watch that has this kind of functionality could be made with pressure sensors rather than mechanical ones. He says you don’t feel the movements as much as you do with mechanical sensors, though.
Ultimately, some of these issues may not matter much; Harrison is also exploring ways we can control smart watches without even touching them. A newer project, which he won’t say much about, investigates moving interactions onto the skin next to the gadget. “We’re really trying to think about ways to expand the interaction,” he says.