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Circuit Breaker

Ultrasound can make gesture controls on your smartphone actually useful

Adding intuitive controls to smartphones using just a speaker and microphone

Elliptic Labs’ technology was used to help eliminate the bezel in Xiaomi’s Mi Mix phone.
Image: James Vincent / The Verge

At trade shows like Mobile World Congress, it’s natural that attention is lavished on the newly unveiled flagship devices soon to hit the market. But, snoop around the booths long enough, and you’ll also find the tech that’s ready to go, but just not yet available to the public. So it is — hopefully — with Elliptic Labs, creators of some of the smoothest smartphone gesture controls I’ve ever seen.

Elliptic Labs’ tech is based on ultrasound, which allows the company to monitor movement in a 360-degree dome surrounding your smartphone. It works like sonar — sending out inaudible frequencies from your phone’s speaker, and listening for their return with the microphone. The company’s algorithms time how long each wave takes to return, and then use these times to estimate distance.

The result is seamless gesture control that uses hardware already available in every smartphone on the market. Elliptic doesn’t have any consumer products available right now, but was able to show off a handful of demo interactions.

Wave to take a picture, then push with your hand to zoom in and out.
Image: James Vincent / The Verge

In one, a phone is sitting on the table when it gets a call; you reach out to take it and the ringer mutes instantly. In another, you’re watching a video on a phone and go to adjust the volume; ultrasound detects your movement and playback controls appear onscreen before you even touch it. In a third, you take a selfie with a gesture and then zoom in and out to check the picture using just your hand.

I found that although each interaction was small, they’re entirely intuitive. Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen said the company wants to make gesture controls that are as easy to use as possible. Although ultrasound can do granular gesture control of the sort you get with Leap Motion, Danielsen says it’ll only be widely adopted if it requires zero thought. To me, these features certainly fulfill that criteria. Stuff like your phone’s ringer muting before you even pick it up to answer a call isn’t going to make headlines, but it makes life just that little bit easier, without asking anything of you.

Danielsen told us Elliptic is currently working with OEMs to integrate its ultrasound tech into devices, and that gestures like these would be showing up in phones “some time in 2017.” There’s some reason to be skeptical about this claim (the company said something similar back in 2015), but ultrasound tech is finally seeing some mainstream adoption. Last year, for example, Xiaomi used Elliptic’s tech to replace the infrared proximity sensor in the Mi Mix handset, allowing the company to eliminate the phone’s top bezel. Let’s hope gesture controls aren’t too far behind.