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These cheap gadgets use acoustics to control phones

Researchers used Acoustruments to build an interactive doll, which responds when its tummy is poked; a smartphone case that can sense when it has been placed on a table or is being hand carried; and an alarm clock that provides physical on/off and snooze buttons. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

Just as a simple slide whistle or flute can produce expressive music, a toolbox of devices called Acoustruments can add a wide range of functionality to a smartphone, including proximity and pressure sensors.

The idea is to use pluggable plastic tubes and other structures to connect the smartphone’s speaker with its microphone. The device can then be controlled by acoustically altering sounds as they pass through this system.

And because no electrical circuitry is involved, the plastic Acoustruments can be made rapidly and inexpensively.

alarm clock diagram
How the alarm clock works. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)
Acoustruments mechanisms
A toolbox of physical knobs, sliders, and other mechanisms that can be readily added to any device. View larger. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

“We’re providing people with tangible interactivity at basically no cost,” says Gierad Laput, a PhD student in Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. Laput is the lead author of a study that will be presented April 22 at CHI 2015, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Seoul, Korea, and has been named a Best Paper by the conference organizers.

“Using smartphones as computers to control toys, appliances, and robots already is a growing trend, particularly in the maker community,” Laput adds. “Acoustruments can make the interactivity of these new ‘pluggable’ applications even richer.”

Smartphone case and alarm clock

People who want to control a smartphone application while their eyes need to be focused elsewhere, for instance, might be less distracted by a tangible knob or button made possible with Acoustruments than with trying to glance at a touchscreen.

Applications that use smartphones as virtual reality displays make it impossible to use the touchscreen controls at all; Acoustruments enable users to make adjustments without disrupting the virtual reality experience.

The researchers used Acoustruments to build an interactive doll, which responds when its tummy is poked; a smartphone case that can sense when it has been placed on a table or is being hand carried; and an alarm clock that provides physical on/off and snooze buttons.

Acoustruments doll
Interactive doll. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

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Wind instruments take a sustained source of sound from a mouthpiece and then alter it by changing the cavity—with a series of holes, as in a flute, or by changing its size, as with a trombone.

Acoustruments operate in a similar manner; the smartphone speaker produces continuous “sweeps” of ultrasonic frequencies; interactions that block, open holes or change the length or diameter of the plastic tubes connecting the speaker to the microphone alter this acoustic signal.

Acoustruments can achieve 99 percent accuracy in controlling the device and can be made with 3D printers, with injection molds, or even by hand in some cases, Laput says.

The ultrasonic frequencies are inaudible to people and the pluggable structures are designed to block out interference from external noise.

In addition to Laput, the research team included Eric Brockmeyer of Disney Research Pittsburgh and two HCII faculty members, Scott Hudson and Chris Harrison. Disney sponsored the project.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University