Control your smartphone with pinchy fingers

The program currently recognizes six different gestures and executes their corresponding commands. Although the researchers have tested 16 outlines, this is not the app's theoretical limit. What matters is that gestures generate unambiguous outlines. (Credit: Marie Coleman/Flickr)

A new app uses a smartphone’s built-in camera to detect hand gestures that resemble sign language. The gestures aren’t intended for communication with people, however—they’re for controlling the smartphone.

Holding the phone in one hand, a user can use the other to move an index finger to the left, sometimes to the right. Other gestures include spreading fingers, imitating a pair of pliers, and pretending to pull a trigger.

The trigger-pulling motion, for example, lets you switch to another browser tab, change the map’s view from satellite to standard, or shoot down enemy planes in a game.

Spreading out your fingers magnifies a section of a map or scrolls the page of a book forwards.

All this gesturing wizardry is made possible by a new type of algorithm developed by Jie Song, a master’s student in the working group headed by Otmar Hilliges, professor of computer science at ETH Zurich. The researchers presented the app to an audience of industry professionals at the UIST symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii.

More gestures to come

The program uses the smartphone’s built-in camera to register its environment. It does not evaluate depth or color. It reduce the information that it does register—the shape of the gesture, the parts of the hand—to a simple outline that is classified according to stored gestures.

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The program then executes the command associated with the gesture it observes. The program also recognizes the hand’s distance from the camera and warns the user when the hand is either too close or too far away.

“Many movement-recognition programs need plenty of processor and memory power,” explains Hilliges, adding that their new algorithm uses a far smaller portion of computer memory and is thus ideal for smartphones.

He believes the application is the first of its kind that can run on a smartphone. The app’s minimal processing footprint means it could also run on smart watches or in augmented-reality glasses like the Apple Watch or Google Glass.

The program currently recognizes six different gestures and executes their corresponding commands. Although the researchers have tested 16 outlines, this is not the app’s theoretical limit. What matters is that gestures generate unambiguous outlines. Gestures that resemble others are not suitable for this application.

The learning curve

Hilliges is convinced that this new way of operating smartphones greatly increases the range of interactivity. His objective is to keep the gestures as simple as possible, so that users can operate their smartphone with very little effort.

But will smartphone users want to adapt to this new style of interaction? Hilliges is confident they will. Gesture control will not replace touchscreen control, but supplement it. “People got used to operating computer games with their movements.”

Touchscreens, Hilliges reminds us, also required a very long adjustment period before making a big impact in consumers’ lives. He is therefore certain that this application—or at least parts of it—will find its way onto the market.

Source: ETH Zurich