One of the recurring themes here at Health Tech Insider is the need for new technology to provide user interfaces for wearable devices and other digital electronics. Touch screens and keyboards simply are not practical solutions as devices get smaller and smaller.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research (IGD) in Germany have come up with a novel approach. They have developed a system that can detect facial movements, such as smiling, winking, or nodding. What is remarkable about this technology is that the sensor rides in the subject’s ear. They call it “EarFieldSensing” (EarFS), and it results in a tiny device that is convenient to wear and inconspicuous to use. It works by detecting tiny electrical currents caused by muscle activity, as well as the physical distortion of the ear canal during certain movements. They came up with a way to filter out the extraneous signals from general body motion.

The system is designed to be used as a user interface to control devices. For example, you might shake your head to decline an incoming call, or smile to answer it. This could lead to a natural and convenient hands-free interface. The sensor data can also be used to analyze the subject’s mood or physical condition. It could be used to detect drowsiness when driving, which could trigger some sort of intervention or alert. It could even let paralyzed individuals operate machines or computers using facial expressions. While researchers are focused on the ear as a source for the sensors, they are also considering how this approach could be applied to other parts of the body.