Robert Xiao and Chris Harrison and their smart watch

When Apple unveiled their much anticipated watch earlier this month, CMU researchers at the Future Interfaces Group welcomed it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Like Apple,  the researchers have been hard at work exploring wearable technologies in the hope of coming up with the next great smart device, if not a watch then a product that connects users to the Internet of Things. Unlike Apple, however, they believe the technology is not ready for primetime.

But with Skin Buttons, all that could change.

The biggest challenge is size. A tiny user interface limits its overall functionality, explains Gierad Laput, one of five researchers who are part of the team working with Chris Harrison, their creative leader and lab director at the Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII). MIT Technology Review selected Harrison as one of the world’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35.

“We were pleased to see that we had been thinking along the same lines (as Apple),” says Laput. “But you can’t just slap a touchscreen on a very small device. No one has solved this (size) problem yet. Apple didn’t nail it.”

Harrison was probably the first to suggest in 2010 that our skin, better yet the forearm, could work as an extended touchpad for smart products. His first project, Skinput, combined bio-acoustic sensors and machine learning software to transfer sound to input data for touch sensing, in this case allowing users to dial phone numbers on their forearm.

“The era of worn computers is imminent, starting with technologies like smart watches and Google Glass but no company has quite cracked the nut yet,” says Harrison. “Worn interfaces must be small to be unobstrusive, but our fingers are relatively large. This means we have to think beyond touch interaction in order to use these devices effectively.”

Their answer is Skin Buttons, which uses very tiny laser diodes for projecting icons into the user’s skin, and it uses infra-red proximity sensors for touch sensing. The drawback is the icons are fixed in nature, Laput says. 

“This is the tradeoff we make in order to make the projectors fit into a tiny watch,” he says. Next week Harrison and his research team will travel to Hawaii to present Skin Buttons at a software and technology conference in Hawaii. 

Will a better CMU smart watch be forthcoming?

“Our core mission is help people to better use computers as tools to improve their lives,” says Laput. “Once we do that, we can influence people, industry and products.”

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.