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  • Writer's pictureTony Dobaj

Redefining "Wearable" Tech

Emerging technologies are quietly fueling innovations in “disappearables”, gadgets that provide benefits without anybody knowing that they’re there.

We are excited to announce that we have 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 locate your buddy while skiing in heavy snow, without removing anything or exposing your phone to the elements. Or hear the next route guidance while riding a citibike to a meeting without stopping or losing focus on the road. Distracted walking is an issue as well, – a 2013 study found that more than 1500 pedestrians were hospitalized in 2010 for accidents related to distracted walking, and the expected total this year is much higher. To address this, municipalities such as Honolulu are now getting laws on the books making looking at your device while crossing the street illegal. Germany has taken the step of placing traffic signals in the sidewalks, quite an expensive prospect. 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 of your right palm against the back of your left hand, or vice versa depending on your handedness. To accomplish the gesture detection there are two major components: the actuator and the sensor package. The sensor package contains an array of sensors that detect magnetic fields. These types of sensors are very common in automobiles and game controllers. The actuator, in the form of a ring, is nothing but a magnet which creates the magnetic field sensed by the sensor package. “There’s only a couple of ways to pull this off hardware-wise”, says Dobaj, “the real IP (intellectual property) is in the detection software, which is not trivial”.

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. 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”.

Gadgettronix is now conducting a private beta test to select individuals to test and refine the product. “These tests will provide us with critical consumer input as to feature set, ergonomics and so forth so we can go to production with the consumer in mind”, says Dobaj. In collaboration with Allegro Micro and Oregon State University, the technical team just achieved proof-of-concept using a state of the art sensor recently released by Allegro that will allow the sensor package to become thinner, smaller and less expensive with a better user experience. “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, potentially reducing cost while at the same time providing better ergonomics and user experience, something that almost never happen, you usually have to pick two of those aspects to get better while the third gets worse.” 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. Anybody that says they can do something like this alone has either never done it or is kidding themselves. It takes a village of creative smart people, something I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble into.

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