Gadgettronix, a local startup based in Highlands Ranch, has teamed up with Allegro Micro, a leading supplier of sensor technology, and the computer science department of Oregon State University to refine a novel device that allows the user to control their mobile electronics using eyes-free gestures rather than interacting with a touchscreen, which is disruptive and can be dangerous.
“’Wearable’ has become a buzz word in the consumer electronics industry that for all intents and purposes means the same thing as ‘smartwatch’”, says Anthony Dobaj, founder of the company. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and to differentiate our approach we like to use the term “disappearable”.
A “wearable” is a class of technology that has been immensely successful for a variety of companies of vastly differing sizes. “FitBit” has practically become a household term to mean a fitness monitor that you wear like a watch, like “Kleenex” is to tissues. And they have reaped the benefits – the company Fitbit grew into a 9B company from 2011 to 2015. But sales figures make it clear that dedicated fitness monitors are becoming less popular than smartwatches because they do so much more than just counting steps, and nobody wants to charge yet another device that doesn’t provide value (one of the highest ranked reasons consumers state for abandoning fitness monitors).
But, according to Dobaj, there is a quiet but disruptive evolution underway based in convenience and productivity. “Information technology and Moore’s Law led to astonishing gains in productivity, but that has slowed down dramatically. Computing devices are still getting smaller and faster, so what gives? We believe it’s because these gadgets have become so powerful that their capabilities outstrip our abilities to effectively interact with them. The benefits are there, you just need to click a dozen things to access them, something that takes your full attention. At some point, the value proposition gets swamped by the hassle, which is a real shame.”
Imagine if you could, with the swipe of your hand in air, use the push-to-talk feature to talk to your buddy while skiing in heavy snow, without removing anything or exposing your phone to the elements. Or call-up the next route guidance while riding a bike share to a meeting without stopping or losing focus on the road. Distracted walking is an issue as well, and municipalities such as Honolulu are now getting laws on the books making looking at your device while crossing the street illegal. Gadgettronix’ first product is the gestr (pronounced “jester”), a device that allows you to interact intuitively with your mobile phone using gestures, allowing pedestrians, cyclists, skiers, runners etc. to maintain focus on what they’re doing.
These gestures take the form of swipes and taps just like on a touchscreen, but there’s no touchscreen and it works through clothing so there’s nothing to take off “There’s only a couple of ways to pull this off hardware-wise”, says Dobaj, “so the real IP (intellectual property) is in the detection software, which is not trivial”. The interpreted gestures are sent to the smartphone wirelessly using Bluetooth, and a companion app will execute the commands received from the gestr and allow the user to assign functions to each gesture. “We have a ton of options in terms of functions associated with the gestures – basically anything you can do programmatically with Android or iOS is fair game, even if it’s with an accessory. For example, the user could assign one gesture to mean ‘start filming with this sports camera on top of my head.’ The testing we’re doing now is, in part, intended to help us prioritize the feature list” according to Dobaj.
The concept was born of a desire to listen to music while mountain biking on the trails outside Dobaj’s home just south of Denver, Colorado. “Listening to music while I’m riding is motivational and therapeutic, but extremely disruptive. If you encounter another rider and want to exchange pleasantries, or do something as simple as check the time, you had to stop, fish out your phone, remove glasses and gloves, and then reverse the entire process. I kept waiting for a solution, but the few products that addressed the issue were expensive, activity-specific, based upon mechanical buttons and so had extremely limited functionality, and poor quality. Bottom line was I just didn’t use my phone in any capacity other than as a safety lifeline (mobile phone) in case I got injured or lost. So I just one day decided to do it myself”.
In collaboration with Allegro Micro and Oregon State University, the technical team just recently validated a state of the art sensor recently released by Allegro that will allow the sensor package to become thinner, smaller (about the size of a postage stamp) and less expensive with a better user experience. Dobaj states that with this technology it’s quite feasible to introduce machine learning and allow the user to design their own gestures, merely by showing the gestr how to do it. “This collaboration has completely exceeded my expectations”, says Dobaj. “The Oregon State team consisting of 3 computer science students (Justin Kruse, Cory Melendez and Josh Erickson) took the recognition algorithm project on as their capstone project and did a fabulous job, reducing cost while at the same time providing better ergonomics and user experience.” Allegro provided hardware and critical insight to help the project along. “This was a win-win-win – the students got a really interesting capstone project, Gadgettronix got a better product, and Allegro got a new market”.
Gadgettronix is a high-tech R&D firm based in Highlands Ranch Colorado focusing on expanding the role of wearable electronics to seamlessly enhance safety, productivity and convenience for busy, connected and active individuals. They are now recruiting for a private beta test in preparation for a Q1, 2018 launch.