The Coming Ultrasonic Boom

Smartphones Are Going Bats

Ultrasound_pen_lIt’s a feature that really hasn’t made much noise on the market, but Qualcomm’s support for ultrasound in their Snapdragon 805 and 810 mobile processor platforms could facilitate some innovative user interactions in future smartphones and tablets. Gesture-based input could have its greatest enabler yet.

Earlier this year, Qualcomm demonstrated the use of ultrasonic sensors in a tablet which communicated with an ultrasound-enabled pen. The tablet could listen to what the user was writing on paper, and this appeared onscreen in real time. The tablet could literally hear with amazing accuracy how the pen was being moved, and could emit ultrasonic noises to communicate back.

Some impressive — and expensive — third-party accessories that communicate scribes back to tablets and smartphones are available, but Qualcomm’s latest high-end mobile chipsets will support the feature out of the box. Ultrasound will begin to appear along with ultra HD as a common tech spec as smart device makers adopt the Snapdragon 805 and 810 platforms. Future smartphones could become a sort of carbon paper for the next generation, and handwriting might make a comeback.

Gesture support has been gaining steam since the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. Sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes and cameras have enabled body movement as an input method, but Microsoft recently demonstrated some impressive research projects using motion for accurate input (see Daily Insight: Fresh Input from Microsoft). One project allowed the device to interpret sign language-like movements in real time using the back camera, for example. Phones have eyes. Intel plans to bring 3D input to devices with its concept of perceptual computing, using its RealSense cameras to capture depth and motion. Dell, Samsung and others have also introduced some interesting motion-tracking technologies for input.

Qualcomm’s use of ultrasound is another leap into the “touch-plus” era. The company’s shown what can be done with a pen accessory and ordinary paper, but developers are likely to take this much further. Combined with wearables, a device can listen for commands which come via movement — no line of sight required.

It sounds too good to be true, but the right moves mean it won’t be just a case of sensor fusion protrusion. Ultrasonic emitters will work with microphones and cameras for a new round of innovative apps and interactions. What’s special today will soon be ordinary — sensors such as accelerometers were once reserved for multi-million dollar fighter jets and massive engineering projects, but now no self-respecting smartphone would be shipped without such a sensor. Ultrasonic emitters have worked their way down the chain and have become common in cars, and are soon to enter phones. Device makers and developers should get ready to support the sound of silence.