Air Writing: Next Big Thing in Cell Phones?

Forget fumbling with tiny cell phone keys.  A prototype of a new application allows cell phone users to write short notes in the air and send them automatically to an e-mail address.

This represents just one possible step toward allowing people to naturally merge the real world with the information power of the Internet. Travelers and other mobile users could air-write notes to themselves rather than have to text on the run.

"By holding the phone like a pen, you can write short messages or draw simple diagrams in the air," said Sandip Agrawal, an electrical and computer engineering student at Duke University in North Carolina.

The air-writing app takes advantage of accelerometers already inside cell phones such as Apple's iPhone. Accelerometers normally keep track of phone movements and orientation, such as having the display screen rotate from portrait to landscape mode.

Speed writers may still want to stick with texting for now, because air-writers currently have to pause briefly between each letter and cannot use cursive. But researchers expect an improved app that will come with better algorithms and accelerometers.

Future versions of this PhonePoint Pen app may even allow users to take a photo with their phone and write a quick note on it.

Such interactivity has also emerged in the work of other research groups, such as MIT's Sixth Sense project, and may signal the new era of cyborg technologies. Applications that can piggyback on existing cell phone technology may also get an advantage.

"We're trying to get past the whole idea of typing on a keyboard or using a stylus to enter information into devices," said Romit Roy Choudhury, an electrical and computer engineer at Duke who acted as Agrawal's mentor.

Agrawal won an inaugural Hoffman + Krippner Award for Excellence in Student Engineering for his work on the application, at the 2009 Sensors Expo and Conference in Chicago on June 9.

Researchers expect the app to become available for download in the next several months. So if you like to jog and tweet on Twitter without running into trees, take note.

Live Science Staff
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