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updated 10/9/2012 12:51:10 PM ET 2012-10-09T16:51:10

If Bluetooth earpiece users look strange, seemingly talking to the air, wait until motion-control bracelets come to market. 

One international group of digital researchers is working toward that arm-flailing future. They've created a wrist-worn device, called Digits, that allows wearers to control video games, computers, smartphones and other devices with hand and finger gestures. The wrist strap doesn't require a touch screen or any outside sensors, so users don't need to be within the line of sight of a system such as the Microsoft Kinect, which uses a camera to track users in the room.

It's still too bulky for common use, but its creators imagine that their research eventually could lead to a bracelet people wear constantly, allowing them to play with their phones and tablets without taking the devices out of their pockets.

"The Digits sensor doesn't rely on external infrastructure, which means users are not bound to a fixed space. They can interact while moving from room to room or running down the street," doctoral student David Kim said in a Microsoft Research release. Kim studies at Newcastle University and Microsoft Research in the United Kingdom. "This finally takes 3D interaction outside the living room," he said.

Digits uses infrared and motion sensors to detect the movements of the hand and fingers. Unlike many other finger-sensing devices, Digits doesn't require users to wear a glove. One of the designers' biggest challenges was getting their system to recognize all the complex movements of the wearer's hand by tracking only a few points on it. "We spent hours just staring at our fingers," Kim said. "We read dozens of scientific papers about the biomechanical properties of the human hand. We tried to correlate these five points with the highly complex motion of the hand."

The result was a system that is able to understand many hand movements. In some applications, such as video gaming, the Digits system re-creates the wearer's hand as an on-screen animation that mirrors the wearer's every move. Check out Digits at work in a video by Microsoft Research:

Digits is still in a prototype stage. It's bulky and requires a nearby computer to help it perform all the calculations it needs to work. With more research, however, it is conceivable to make Digits as small as a watch or to integrate its components into a watch, Kim and his colleagues wrote in a paper they presented yesterday (Oct. 8) during a conference hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery. 

"Ultimately, we would like to reduce Digits to the size of a watch that can be worn all the time," Kim said. "We want users to be able to interact spontaneously with their electronic devices using simple gestures and not even have to reach for their devices."

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