Microchip developed by UC researchers allows hands-free use of electronic devices

Richard Przybyla/Courtesy
The current Chirp prototype, showing the ultrasound chip (left, in the hole on the blue board), and the custom electronics chip (just to the right of the blue board in a black package).

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Researchers from the University of California are developing a microchip that would allow users to perform tasks on their electronic devices with the simple wave of a hand.

The prototype of the microchip functions by detecting sound waves emitted by hand gestures and interpreting them. The researchers hope the chip will eventually be built into electronic devices such as Google Glass, a wearable computer device that allows users to take photos and record videos.

The chip, named Chirp, is the product of a five-year collaboration that began in September 2008 between researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Davis.

The chip’s name refers to a bat’s chirp, said Richard Przybyla, a graduate student at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center who is working on the project. A bat sends out ultrasounds to hunt its prey; similarly, Chirp interprets hand movements by detecting sound waves.

“The goal is to make interacting with your device as natural as possible,” Przybyla said.

Researchers at UC Davis built the sensor that allows the ultrasound chip to transmit and receive signals from the air, and researchers from UC Berkeley designed the demo chip and refined the technology.

Chirp operates by collecting images from objects and works like medical ultrasounds or submarines that use sonars to see things underwater, said David Horsley, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis who leads the UC Davis portion of the collaboration.

The demo chip, designed by Przybyla, is able to read hand gestures that move from left to right as well as in and out, but it cannot read gestures that move up and down. Some basic gestures programmed into the chip allow users to control a slideshow and fly an airplane using a flight simulator on a computer. The team currently has a demo that detects hand gestures from as far as a meter from the screen.

Some of Chirp’s most notable features are its power efficiency and small size. The side of the chip is currently only 6 millimeters long, and the entire chip is about the same size as the lens of a smartphone camera.

Chirp is an add-on, not a replacement of current touch-screen technology, Przybyla said. The microchip would help users operate devices such as smartwatches, where the face of the watch is only big enough to fit two or three fingers.

“If you could use gestures instead, you could make the user interface much more flexible,” he said.

The team plans to develop gestures that will allow users to perform a variety of tasks on their electronic devices, which will interpret an individual’s precise finger movements. Horsley predicted that users would be able to create a personalized library of gestures with this new feature.

The team has been meeting with automobile companies, computer manufacturers and other companies to discuss plans to integrate the chip in consumer electronics.

“There’s a lot of interest, almost too much interest,” Przybyla said.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].