Our hands can do more than tap and poke, so why shouldn't our phones understand?

By Erin Griffith , written on November 14, 2012

From The News Desk

Oh, innovation. You're not always commercially viable, but you're always exciting. I was reminded of that at last night's New York Tech Meetup, the city's largest demo event that famously bans questions about business models. (The reason is mostly because the tech meetup was founded to showcase cool products, not boring business strategies.) The philosophy was particularly on display tonight, as it was university night. The night's 12 demos were all created in universities, whether through a school-sponsored hackathon or a university research lab.

There wasn't much of a business use case for many of the demos. Like the amazing Heads Up! Hot Dogs, an 8-bit game where players scoop up hotdogs from the street and place them on the heads of passersby before the three-second rule is up. Or TrollNet, a wifi access point that trolls Web surfers on your connection with cat photobombs on every page they load. Or DOM, which lets you surf a webpage in 3D. Or Touche, a sensing technology that allowed a guy to play an orchid like it was a string instrument. Not having an immediately obvious business model doesn't mean they weren't creative, inspiring projects. I overheard so many conversations about how refreshingly innovative the night's demos were (with no offense meant to the meetup's more standard mix of SoLoMo apps and e-commerce sites).

I was most impressed by Qeexo, a software that makes smartphones sensitive to different types of touches. Instead of just tapping and poking at our smartphones, Qeexo allows us to use a knuckle for a right-click and a fingernail for a different function. A basic aluminum stylus can be used for a fourth type of input, and its eraser end, a fifth. Because it uses a microphone which tracks the sound of the different inputs to determine whether it is a knock, tap, nail, or stylus, Qeexo's technology, called called "Fingersense," can be used on any mobile operating system with a touchscreen. Qeexo just needs manufacturers to sign on and put their tiny microphones into the phone. It's so simple that it's more of a philosophical question than one of cost or difficulty, creator Chris Harrison told me.

He explained the importance of his innovation: Touch is increasingly the way we interact with computers. Desktop computing is moving toward a hybrid of touch-desktop computers. The addition of a scroll wheel on a computer mouse seemed so tiny, but its introduction was huge in terms of the way we navigate data online. It's time for touchscreens to have modes of input that go beyond poking, he argued onstage. "I'm not saying you want to take away the intuitiveness of touch," he said. "But for power users, we want those features built in."

Qeexo (pronounced Keeck-zo) was developed in Carnegie Mellon University, where Harrison is a grad student. It's been patented and spun out into its own company. Harrison said he's in conversations with well-known OEM partners to implement it into phones but wouldn't elaborate on the details. Funny, that sounds kinda like the dreaded commercial viability we came here to escape.