Inspired by a water hose, MIT’s Tangible Media Group wants you to control connected devices with their cords.
It happens all the time: You reach into your bag, pocket or desk to pull out your headphones. And, no matter how neatly they were wrapped up beforehand, the cords are a tangled mess. Pair this with the rise of wireless technologies, and you can see why they’ve gotten a bad rap throughout the years. However, what if those cables were used as an interface with your connected devices? Imagine if such things as tying knots, stretching, pinching and kinking the wire could actually control the flow of data and/or power of your gadgets.
That’s what one joint research team, led by Philipp Schoessler of MIT’s Tangible Media Group and Sang-won Leigh of the Fluid Interfaces Group, has set out to do. Aptly called Cord UIs, it’s a project that wants to turn cords into a user interface and hopefully give them a meaning other than simply a nuisance.
“Cord UIs are sensorial augmented cords that allow for simple metaphor-rich interactions to interface with their connected devices. Cords offer a large underexplored space for interactions as well as unique properties and a diverse set of metaphors,” Leigh writes. “We also look at ways to use objects in combination with augmented cords to manipulate data or properties of a device. For instance, placing a clamp on a cable can obstruct the audio signal to the headphones. Using special materials such as piezo copolymer cables and stretchable cords we built five working prototypes to showcase the interactions.”
The Tangible Media Group’s latest paper explains that despite the intensive research on wireless technologies typically associated with the rise of the Internet of Things, cords aren’t going to entirely disappear for quite some time. In fact, those ubiquitous wires hold some unique properties, thereby making them an interesting and useful tangible interface. Among their most notable properties are their wide-range of materials and form factors, which range from flexible and spiral to flat and rigid. This enables them to potentially be employed to offload interactions from a device and to offer quick and eyes-free interactions.
“Moreover, one of the underlying principles of tangible interface design is to augment everyday objects with technology aimed at exploiting real-world metaphors. Most interactions we describe in this paper evolved from the idea to regard the cord as a water hose and data or power as water flowing in this water hose.”
The basis of the interactions stem strongly from the metaphor of looking at the cord as a hose, while the power and data are the liquid flowing through it. Furthermore, the researchers explored other analogies, such as “breaking a connection” and “pulling something out of something,” that create a strong conceptual model that would assist in making these interactions much relatable and easier to comprehend.
Subsequently, the team classified these cord actions into three categories: touch, knot and objects. In order to explore some of their proposed interactions, they devised five prototypes — each of which work by augmenting the entire or parts of a cord. The prototypes were all comprised of readily available materials, sensors and cables, while an Atmel based Arduino was used to program the cords and control the sensor readings.
Imagine if tightening a knot could dim a lamp; attaching a clip on a power cord could put a computer to sleep; squeezing a headphone cable could temporarily mute the earbuds; kinking a power strip’s cord could toggle it on/off; and, stretching a USB cord could safe-eject the hard drive. Here’s a look at the five different ways the researchers are looking to redefine those once “dumb” wires.
“To detect a knot in a cord, and use it to adjust the brightness of a lamp by altering its tightness, we embedded a Flexpoint 2.2-inch bend sensor into wrap-around isolation together with a four-strand cable. Two of the strands were used to read out the sensor data. The other two strands were used to power the lamp. We used the microcontroller to read out the analog resistance value and to control the brightness of the light accordingly.”
“We augmented a MacBook power cord with conductive polymer sandwiched between two sheets of heavy copper foil. When applying pressure the resistance between the two copper sheets decreases. Since the power cord doesn’t offer the possibility to send any signals to the laptop we decided to send a long pulse (1000ms) by switching the power cord on/off using a relay. Using AppleScript we listen for this rising-edge ‘signal’ by checking if the computer AC power is connected or not. We then issue the command to go to sleep or wake up.”
“We use conductive yarn that we wove into the fabric of braided cable sleeving. The microcontroller detects touch via a large resistor (~1 MOhm) placed in series, which responds to any resistance changes following contact with the human body and ground. It can also detect the amount of pressure that is applied to the cord, since the resistance is inversely correlated to the area of human skin touching the cord. By temporarily shorting ground to the microphone input on an audio cable we can toggle the pause/resume functionality in an iPhone. We chose to use capacitive sensing over pressure sensors to detect pinching, to avoid accidental triggering in through cable stress.”
“Alongside the power cord we placed a Piezo Copolymer Coaxial Cable from Measurement Specialties to detect kinks and switch on/off the power strip. The piezo polymer generates a voltage that is proportional to the amount of compression or stretch that is put on it. Piezo cables are often times used in traffic counting. To switch the power on/off we implemented a relay into a power strip that is controlled by a microcontroller.”
“For the easy-eject hard drive we augmented a stretchable cord with a stretch sensor (resistive rubber) that decreases its resistance when expanded. We use a a special stretchable cord which is often used in robotics where it can help to reduce a lot of wear and tear caused by the moving robots. This cable can usually only be stretched up to 30% of its original length but by removing the curled strands from their original sleeving and threading it in rubber tubing we increased the stretch to more than 50%. To interpret a stretch and eject the hard drive we used openFrameworks in combination with AppleScript.”
The team notes that another potentially interesting area for further exploration is the actuation of cords. Meaning, Cord UIs could be used as output rather than only input, which would allow for ambient, audio, visual or haptic feedback about events or interactions. This project goes to show that there’s no reason these cables can’t become smarter, much like everything else these days. In fact, a majority of the interactions the team has suggested with Cord UIs would be inexpensive and easy for companies today to implement. Interested? You can read the entire research paper here.