A group of researchers from the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University have figured out a way to turn an off-the-shelf smartwatch into more than just a notification system or a fitness tracker.
By overclocking the accelerometer on an LG smartwatch, the researchers were able to capture and process bio-acoustic signals, turning a smartwatch into a gesture device, a data transmitter, and a highly specific activity tracker, all at the same time.
What does all of that mean? In short, the smartwatch becomes a super-sensitive data receptor and transmitter. In a video the group posted on YouTube, you can see how the hacked smartwatch can pick up on even the smallest vibrations and audio signals of an electric toothbrush.
This means the watch is also sensitive enough to recognize flicks, snaps, taps, and other gestures. You don’t have to tap on the smartwatch’s display; you can tap on your arm, and the smartwatch will interpret the signal. Wave your "smartwatched" hand in the air, and you can navigate the software on another connected device in front of you.
With an overclocked smartwatch, corresponding apps can also better understand the context of the everyday activities you’re doing, says Chris Harrison, an associate professor at CMU and director of the Future Interfaces Group. Let’s say you’re driving a car, pushing the button on a blender, or using a power drill, while wearing the smartwatch. Because of the granularity of the data, the watch interprets what you’re doing and apps can show you relevant info.
The smartwatch "knows" whether you're using a power drill or just driving in your car
The project, which the CMU team calls ViBand, isn’t commercially available, but is meant to test the limits of how useful smartwatches can actually be. Right now, all smartwatches and other activity trackers have commodity accelerometers, with software limiting the sample rate to around 100Hz. In this case, the researchers used an Android-based, LG G smartwatch and modified the Linux kernel on the watch to capture accelerometer data at 4,000 times per second. (More details on how they did this are available here.)
The next obvious question is what all of this does to battery life, since some smartwatches aren’t exactly known for long-lasting battery life. Harrison says that hacking the accelerometer "maybe doubles its power usage." What’s more power intensive is the smartwatch’s software having to absorb all of the additional data from the accelerometer, which usually happens on the device’s main processor and not its low-power co-processor.
Check out the video below to see ViBand in action.