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How a tap could tame the smart home

Here’s a novel fix for the headache of interacting with all sorts of connected devices: researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have devised a system that lets smartphone users tap their phone against an IoT device in order to have a contextual menu automatically loaded on screen — thereby saving them from having to scramble around looking for the correct app to control each device. Or fiddling with actual physical buttons and trying to navigate less consumer friendly menus.

So, in other words, “no more scrolling through endless pages of apps on your phone to control with your supposed ‘smart home’”, as CMU researcher Chris Harrison puts it.

The system, called Deus EM-Machina (see what they did there?), leverages the fact that electromagnetic noise is emitted from everyday electrical objects to power a device classifier — they’re using a smartphone kitted out with an EM-sensor that can detect what IoT device it’s resting on — enabling contextual functionality to be pushed to the smartphone screen so it can be a dynamic control device.

And while researchers at CMU’s Future Interfaces Group have previously shown a similar electromagnetic sensing system running on a wearable device — also for powering contextual awareness of other devices — the use of a smartphone as the control device in this latest research scenario means richer menus can be made available to users, allowing more control functions to be supported.

Introducing the research in a paper they write:

We propose an approach where users simply tap a smartphone to an appliance to discover and rapidly utilize contextual functionality. To achieve this, our prototype smartphone recognizes physical contact with uninstrumented appliances, and summons appliance-specific interfaces. Our user study suggests high accuracy – 98.8% recognition accuracy among 17 appliances. Finally, to underscore the immediate feasibility and utility of our system, we built twelve example applications, including six fully functional end-to-end demonstrations

Examples of the apps the researchers built to demonstrate the sensing system are shown in the below video — including controlling a thermostat; configuring a router; printing a document that’s on screen on the mobile device with a single print button push; sending text from a mobile to a desktop computer; and more.