SensorSnaps Bring Touch, Motion Tracking, and Gesture Recognition to Any Clothing — for a While

Designed to operate as snap fasteners, SensorSnaps make any clothing smart — for up to 45 minutes of continuous operation, anyway.

Gareth Halfacree
3 months agoSensors / Wearables

Researchers from the MIT Media Lab and Google have released a paper detailing SensorSnaps, battery-powered wireless sensor nodes designed to replace buttons and cufflinks in existing clothing to create smart textiles capable of tracking motion and recognizing gestures for device control.

The death of the PDA and the birth of the smartphone put what just a couple of decades ago would have been a supercomputer with unbelievable network capabilities into millions of peoples' pockets. Despite efforts at recognizing gestures and speech, however, the majority of interactions with these slabs of wonder take the form of pointing and poking with a finger. Artem Demetyev and Tomás Vega Gálvez from the MIT Media Lab and Alex Olawal from Google have an alternative in SensorSnaps, button and cufflink replacements which bring gesture-recognition smarts to existing clothing.

"Adding electronics to textiles can be time-consuming and requires technical expertise. We introduce SensorSnaps, low-power wireless sensor nodes that seamlessly integrate into caps of fabric snap fasteners," the trio explain in the abstract of their paper. "SensorSnaps provide a new technique to quickly and intuitively augment any location on the clothing with sensing capabilities. SensorSnaps securely attach and detach from ubiquitous commercial snap fasteners. Using inertial measurement units, the SensorSnaps detect tap and rotation gestures, as well as track body motion."

The prototype SensorSnaps proved popular in testing. Attaching them to existing clothes took no longer than non-smart off-the-shelf snaps, while users were able to control music playback and the movement of a cursor through intuitive gesture control. The SensorSnaps, which are based on the Nordic Semiconductor nRF52932 platform with added Bosch BNO055 nine-axis inertial measurement unit, are even capable of tracking full motion throughout 3D space - but this, the researchers warn, is power-intensive.

Power, in fact, is a real drawback of the design: to keep each SensorSnap small, there's not much room for a battery. "We optimised the power consumption for SensorSnaps to work continuously for 45 minutes and up to 4 hours in capacitive touch standby mode," the team admits. Cost, however, shouldn't be too much of an issue. Manufactured in 1,000-unit quantities the existing design is estimated to cost around $20 each; in higher volume, the overall cost could come down to $8 per SensorSnap.

The team's paper was published as part of the Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST'19), and is available via the ACM Digital Library.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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