Carnegie Mellon University (Future Interfaces Group)
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University think that in the near future, an onslaught of smart devices will become overwhelming to use. Think of the number of apps you could conceivably have on your phone for all your random Internet of Things gadgets — and that isn’t even considering more industrial objects that are technically smart but maybe don’t have a public-facing interface. Apple’s tried introducing the Home app to centralize this, but even still, they require the products to be approved by Apple.
CMU researchers want to change this system of controls. Instead of hunting for an app, they’d prefer you just hold your phone up to a device to launch controls. How will they pull this off? Electromagnetic emissions.
All electronic devices, even non-connected ones, give off electromagnetic emissions, so the team of researchers at CMU’s Future Interfaces Group outfitted a Moto G phone from 2015 with an EM sensor dongle that can pick up on these emissions. They also inlaid copper tape to act as an antenna. Their software recognizes these EM signatures and uses them to bring up controls for the device — no more searching for an app.
The team pulled from public APIs and developed their own app interfaces for demo purposes. The phone can either launch manufacturers’ own apps or something the team developed called “charms.” These contextual charms, or widgets, pertain to the smart device, which might not have a full-blown app. In one case, the researchers created a charm for a printer so that whenever the phone detected the device, a button to print popped up. They also showed off how their system could be used to control a router, thermostat, TV, projector, and a refrigerator, among other devices.
Although their system was reportedly accurate 98 percent of the time, they did encounter some issues. For one, although all devices emit an electromagnetic signature, the same product will release extremely similar EMs. The Hue light in your bedroom will emit basically the same signature as the one in your living room, for example, so the researchers say they’re still devising work-arounds. They could rely on a phone’s GPS, although accuracy would have to improve. Also, not all hardware manufacturers maintain open APIs, so in the future, they’d likely have to partner with them to create functionality.